What's Next for Ferry Service Expansion?

What Bay Area Council (BAC) President Jim Wunderman thinks about ferries matters a lot.

Photo by Joel Williams

An Interview With WETA Vice Chair and Bay Area Council President Jim Wunderman



Published: July, 2019


What Bay Area Council (BAC) President Jim Wunderman thinks about ferries matters a lot. The BAC was there at the start 20 years ago, convening the so-called Blue Ribbon Committee that led to the formation of the Water Transit Authority. The WTA was, in turn, the predecessor to the Water Emergency Transit Authority, the agency that today operates the San Francisco Bay Ferry system.


Wunderman and the BAC’s vision for comprehensive regional ferry service for the Bay Area required passing three state laws, including major bond funding and two regional bridge toll hikes. The political and financial wherewithal necessary for WETA simply wouldn’t exist without them. Before taking the helm at the BAC, Wunderman cut a wide swath through Bay Area political and corporate circles, notably holding top roles with San Francisco mayors Frank Jordan and Dianne Feinstein.


In a nutshell, Wunderman favors a more aggressive approach to expansion, one that includes new technologies such as hovercraft and public-private partnerships to add routes to currently unserved areas.


Here’s an edited transcript of a conversation between Wunderman and Dan Rosenheim done for the June edition of Waterfront Briefing, a regular executive report of issues and events related to San Francisco Bay transit:


Dan Rosenheim: Suddenly, ferry boats are very sexy. Ridership has increased steadily in the last few years, and there’s growing demand for more boats, serving more communities. What would you like to see happen to ferry service in the coming years?


Jim Wunderman: For ferry advocates like us at the Bay Area Council, who go back 20 years to the founding of WETA, it’s all a bit disorienting! For many years, ridership was low, and we had to beg authorities not to cancel ferries and convince the public of their value. But in the last few years it’s spun completely the other way around; now our problem is keeping up with the demand for more service and new routes. A big part of this is growing congestion on our roads as well as crowding on BART. Ferries provide a fast, safe and reliable alternative.


So, ferry service needs to expand to meet demand! We do have a good core system, with regular routes among many central bay cities. But we need much more—more ferries running to more places more frequently.


In the coming years, and not that many years, ferry service should be extended to Berkeley and points north including cities along the Carquinez Strait, to Treasure Island, to Mission Bay and perhaps other new destinations in San Francisco and Alameda Counties, and importantly, to Redwood City and other communities in the South Bay.


DR: That sounds like a vision for comprehensive regional ferry service. What stands in the way?


JW: Well, for one, funding is always a challenge. We need to be sure we have sustainable funding sources so that when we start service it stays put. We’ll need to find new sources of funds – and think more creatively about how ferry service is structured—who provides it and how. Most of our successful plans represent some form of partnership between WETA, local government agencies, and in some cases, developers. I see opportunity for private sector operators to make important contributions as we go forward, relieving the public sector of some of the capital burden.


Now, we’ve done pretty darned well securing ferry boats’ share of public funding. Regional Measure 3, assuming legal challenges against it don’t succeed, will provide an important new infusion of money. But it won’t achieve the vision laid out above.


Going forward, we need to be flexible about the kinds of boats we use—some runs are appropriate for WETA’s big boats and docks. But other runs demand smaller boats, different types of schedules and newer technologies, such as hovercraft. And we need to find a way to move more quickly. Planning for ferry service, like funding, is complicated. It requires studies and reviews that can take years. The boats have to be safe, the docks accessible, the workforce engaged, and we need to be mindful of the environment. But the process can be streamlined without taking shortcuts.


DR: Do you have some specifics in mind?


JW: It’s a complex problem and the answer is going to take hard work and consensus building.


For one, though, a small but important contribution can be made by so-called water-taxis and private-public partnerships. These partnerships need to be carefully thought out. Safety, the environment, and wages and working conditions for ferry boat employees can’t get short shrift. But in some cases, private ferry companies can move more quickly when it comes to launching hovercraft and providing smaller-boat service to new communities. So it may make sense for big public agencies like WETA and Golden Gate to look for ways to collaborate with them.


DR: What is the biggest challenge facing WETA in all this?


JW: WETA is responsible for planning and helping to realize ferry service for the entire Bay. That’s a tall order; we’re already two decades in and there’s far to go. WETA can and should play an important role in helping the region develop common policies involving the use of publicly funded docks, emergency preparedness and getting new services off the ground. There are a number of important regulatory agencies involved, like BCDC, the California PUC, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Game and others with whom we’ve built strong relationships. But the general public can’t possibly know how much work it takes from conception to ribbon cutting when it comes to creating new terminal infrastructure needed to enable service to expand.


Also, remember that WETA has no control over landside decisions. To make water transit work, there needs to be a strong partnership and commitment to action created and maintained between WETA and the cities who become the beneficiaries of new service.


This last is especially important. A useful model is how WETA worked with the City of Richmond to bring about ferry service. The mutual effort involved Richmond finding new revenue sources, identifying a place for a dock and parking, and getting the word out once service started. It all worked like a charm; that service is far exceeding expectations.


WETA and the Port of San Francisco have also shown great adaptability in the decision to build a temporary ferry dock for the new Chase Center. As you know, construction of the permanent dock has made progress but there are still funding decisions to be made. I think we’ll work through those once RM3 clears its court challenges, but to their credit WETA and the port scrambled to come up with an interim solution just a few blocks away that will allow service to get started this fall as the arena opens.


DR: What role should be played by privately-operated small ferry companies?


JW: What’s not to like about companies using water taxis to get their employees to work? It’s really a lot like the shuttle bus concept, just on the water—and like the shuttle buses, it gets cars off the road. That said, there were important wrinkles that needed to be ironed out regarding the shuttle buses including shared use of pickup areas, and fair pay and working conditions for drivers. So, again, we need to ensure the same kinds of standards if private companies use publicly funded docks.


Safety is also critical. It’s especially important that small boat crews have proper training. A bus can just pull over to the side of the road; the captain of a vessel has a whole different set of challenges.


DR: Public-private partnerships aren’t always easy to pull off. People have vested interests that they worry about.


JW: I don’t see why all that can’t be figured out. I’m excited about water taxis helping to get new communities going on a path that ends up in them having full-blown WETA service like Richmond and our other cities. I believe WETA should welcome working with smaller private companies if that can be the result.


DR: OK, but if private ferry companies are to share publicly-funded facilities like docks with public ferries, what standards and expectations should be set?


JW: I’ll leave these all-important details to the experts, but I think we will want input from several groups, including the Coast Guard, the broader Harbor Safety Committee and organized labor.


Key issues will be crews with safety credentials, participation in water traffic safety and environmental protocols, participation in emergency preparedness and a shared understanding of wages and working conditions. We may need to explore some type of tiered wage system but with a clear understanding that once sufficient ridership is achieved, providers observe the WETA standards for how employees are compensated and treated. I believe the expansion of water transit, establishing the Bay Area as the global leader in terms of providing robust ferry service, will provide great career opportunities for workers.


DR: Lots to be done but sounds like you’re optimistic.


JW: I am. The need for new and better transit alternatives is there, and the public is ready to come onboard. It’s exciting, and there’s ultimately no reason at all we can’t do it.

Dan Rosenheim is a veteran Bay Area journalist who recently retired after 18 years as Vice President/News for KPIX-5 TV. Prior to going into broadcast, Rosenheim worked as a reporter, city editor and managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Dan and his wife, Cindy Salans Rosenheim, live in San Francisco.