(Courtesy photo)

Bridge toll lawsuit imperils funds for SF Bay hovercraft study

A lawsuit to halt Bay Area bridge toll increases could also torpedo an effort to study running hovercraft on the San Francisco Bay.

In the wake of that suit, filed in July last year, the funding for future planning is scarce at the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, officials said at a meeting Thursday afternoon, and a proposed $400,000 study of potential routes for hovercraft ferries may need to shrink significantly.

“I don’t know if I want to be spending four hundred grand on this,” said Nick Josefowitz, a member of the WETA Board of Directors.

Josefowitz wasn’t alone. WETA Board of Directors Chair Jody Breckenridge told authority staff that shrinking the project’s scope may make the study more palatable.

How large or small a study she would approve will be driven by the amount of money available, Breckenridge said.

The authority, WETA, runs San Francisco Bay Ferry, which operates commuter ferry routes between San Francisco, Vallejo and the East Bay. But hovercraft ferries could unlock a wider service area for the agency, due to their versatility.

In January, Bay Area leaders, including WETA Board of Directors member Jim Wunderman, urged San Francisco Bay Ferry to study employing hovercraft ferries on the Bay in order to reach shallow areas where conventional ferries might run aground. That would particularly help commuters ferry back and forth between San Francisco and the South Bay, which in some places has a shoreline only three feet deep, since hovercraft do exactly what their name suggests — hover on a cushion of air.

The money to study what routes the hovercraft ferries would best work for, which craft to purchase, and the technology’s environmental implications was set to come from Regional Measure 3, a measure passed by Bay Area voters in June to hike bridge tolls. The funds were expected to help BART purchase new train cars for its Fleet of the Future, partially pay for the “next generation” of Clipper, support the Caltrain extension into downtown San Francisco and provide $300 million in one-time funds for WETA to expand its fleet, among other regional projects.

But that funding was halted when the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued on the grounds that the toll hike needed a two-thirds vote of the electorate, not a simple majority, because it is allegedly a tax.

“Unless RM3 (money) starts flowing, there’s no change” in the need to shrink the study, Nina Rannells, executive director of WETA, told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday.

Not everyone agrees the lack of funding should shrink the scope of the hovercraft study — including the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association itself.

The organization’s director of legal affairs, Tim Bittle, said California can afford transportation projects without putting the fee to motorists “to subsidize somebody else’s commute.”

“It’s not a goal of ours to prevent any transportation improvement project from happening,” Bittle said Thursday, “but the state of California is flush with surplus funds right now that could be used for that kind of thing.”

The WETA Board of Directors asked staff to bring at least two proposals — with one featuring a significantly reduced scope for the study — back to the board at its next regular meeting, in May.

UPDATE: Hovercraft study funding may not be as threatened by the bridge toll lawsuit as previously expressed, but funding to purchase hovercrafts themselves is.

That’s according to WETA spokesperson Thomas Hall, who clarified that earlier comments from WETA were provided in error and funding for the hovercraft study would come from other sources besides Regional Measure 3.

However, the WETA Board of Directors does want to spend less agency funding on a study, citing concerns that funds for the agency generally are low.

And funding at WETA is still imperiled by the bridge toll lawsuit overall, Hall said. More than $300 million in one-time funding plus up to $35 million in operational funds were slated to come from RM3, which a lawsuit from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association halted.

Some of that funding would go toward the operation of hovercraft, Hall confirmed.

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