Downtown Ferry Expansion Project opens for business

Years in the making, the fully completed project is a bright spot in a dark time for public transit

At a time when most of San Francisco public transportation is facing major cuts, there’s at least one reason to celebrate: the opening of the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal Expansion Project in its entirety Thursday.

Completion of the $98 million, 13,000-square-foot plaza behind the Ferry Building puts a capstone on a decade-long effort to expand and modernize the Bay Area’s ferry system as well as make it more resilient against rising sea levels.

“It represents a huge leap forward for our ferry capacity and emergency response capabilities, and it also happens to be a really gorgeous space” Jim Wunderman, chair of the Water Emergency Transportation Authority Board of Directors, said in a statement.

WETA oversees the expansion of the Bay Area public ferry service and coordinates emergency water transit should there be a disaster or other major event that would disrupt mobility on land.

Passengers taking the ferry to Oakland, Alameda, Richmond or Vallejo will enjoy two new ferry gates and a refurbished existing gate, weather-protected canopies and a ferry terminal equipped with a new plaza and pedestrian promenade.

Construction started on the project in 2016. WETA could only build during specific windows of time — between June 1 and Nov 30 over the last three years — due to wildlife considerations including the impact of the vibrations caused by drilling piles on species in the water.

Two new ferry gates opened in December 2018 and February 2019, respectively. The refurbished gate opened in February 2020, and Thursday’s unveiling comes on the heels of the kitted out public plaza’s completion.

By 2035, WETA plans to grow systemwide to 44 total vessels and 16 terminals, including at Treasure Island, Redwood City and San Francisco’s Mission Bay. WETA officials have said the terminal expansion is a key part of achieving such lofty goals.

Officials have long eyed ferry expansion as part of a solution to the Bay Area’s infamous rush hour gridlock and overcrowded BART, pre-pandemic.

“Ferries are one of the most cost-effective ways for us to reduce traffic congestion and quickly address our transit needs. Today’s opening paves the way for a world class water transit system in the Bay Area,” Assemblymember David Chiu said in the WETA press release.

Though officials anxiously await the day when all ferry routes can run at full capacity, today they’re settling for just three routes limited to 30% capacity to provide room for social distancing.

“Effective and efficient transit is essential for the post-pandemic recovery of the Bay Area economy,” the press release said of how the more robust ferry will contribute to the larger area efforts to move workers and employees effectively throughout the region.

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