SF Ferry to explore expanding fleet with smaller, water taxi-like vessels

A major Bay Area ferry service may explore expanding its fleet with smaller, water taxi-like ferries in an effort to combat traffic congestion.

Those smaller vessels could expand ferry service to Bay Area cities that lack larger berths and possibly provide an alternative to daily car commutes to San Francisco.

The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority Board of Directors is set to vote Thursday on an “exploratory study” of a plan to incorporate smaller vessels into the San Francisco Bay Ferry fleet.

Blue, white and green San Francisco Bay Ferry vessels criss-cross the bay everyday, swiftly carrying about 7,500 commuters between Alameda, Oakland, Vallejo and San Francisco. The water authority voted to approve a major expansion in 2016 from 14 vessels to 44, which could see it increase its ridership five times over by 2035.

“It’s a really bold plan,” said Ernest Sanchez, spokesperson for the district.

But while that multi-year plan is implemented, the water authority is also looking at expanding its fleet to include smaller watercraft to serve smaller Bay Area cities.

San Francisco Bay Ferry vessels range from 222-passenger vessels to larger-sized craft that carry 445 passengers, said Sanchez.

Smaller, 22-60 passenger vessels could fill gaps in service, according to a San Francisco Bay Ferry staff report to be presented at Thursday’s meeting.

That report identifies “possible areas of study” where smaller vessels could be used, like in cities with low demand that still may desire ferry service, like Martinez.

Smaller vessels could also be useful during low service demand periods, for use in cities with shallow water berths that larger vessels cannot use, or to serve as “backup” relief vessels on busy days, according to the staff report.

In a Jan. 10 letter Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, which represents businesses across the Bay Area, urged the water authority to explore adopting smaller vessels.

“Pending the availability of new operating funds, these smaller vessels could present an opportunity for us to deliver service to new locations like Berkeley, Mission Bay, Redwood City, and sites in the Carquinez Strait within the year,” he wrote. “These vessels hold promise of enabling us to deliver service to new locations on a very expedited timeline, as well as provide off peak service on existing routes.”

Private water taxi services already ferry commuters across the Bay Area, including Tideline, which launched its San Francisco to Berkeley service via small watercraft in Feb. 2017. PropSF also operates a charter water taxi service for Genentech employees to South San Francisco from Tiburon, Berkeley and other locations, according to the water authority.

Martinez City Manager Brad Kilger wrote that The City of Martinez supports small watercraft at its waterfront, in a Feb. 14 letter to the water authority.

“The smaller, more agile and less expensive vessels … hold the promise of providing service at a cost well below” previous projections of ferry service, Kilger wrote, and would provide vital connections between water and land transit systems.

The cost to study the use of small watercraft will be estimated once the water authority finds a subcontractor to perform the study, Sanchez said.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez covers transportation for the San Francisco Examiner. He also writes the weekly political On Guard column. Reach him at joe@sfexaminer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzTheReporter.

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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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