Downtown Ferry Terminal expansion project makes major hire, but may be hampered by environmental concerns

Now a small part of the Bay Area’s transit infrastructure, ferries are set to make major waves on the San Francisco Bay in the coming years.

Part of that planned resurgence relies on the expansion of San Francisco’s downtown ferry terminal, which Thursday achieved a milestone by hiring a key engineering firm to shepherd the project through its construction.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors approved the hiring of CH2M Hill, an engineering consultancy, for the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal Expansion project.

The authority oversees the San Francisco Bay ferry service from The City to Alameda and Oakland and is spearheading the project to majorly revamp and expand the terminals behind the Ferry Building.

Where only two terminals stand now — one to Vallejo and the other to the East Bay — soon five will serve a bustling waterfront. The engineers at CH2M Hill will help oversee the engineering aspects of that construction.

One of CH2M Hill’s first key duties will be to help in the selection of a “Construction Manager at Risk” to act as the main company that does the construction work. They’ll also play a key role in finalizing the project’s design and negotiating a construction price.

Expansion of the downtown terminal may also play a key role in WETA’s new 20-year Strategic Plan, which the board also discussed Thursday.

“What’s most significant [in the plan] is expanded service,” said Kevin Connolly, manager of planning and development at WETA.

That plan lays out dramatic new goals for the agency, which tentatively hopes to expand from the 12 vessels with seven terminals and four routes it has now to 44 vessels, 16 terminals and 12 routes by 2035.

That would see an increase peak capacity of 7,500 daily riders to at least 37,000 daily riders, according to the agency.

“This is a lot happening in 20 years,” Connolly said.

The WETA board also got its first look Thursday at the narrow window of time the agency has to complete construction of the downtown ferry terminal project.

“In order to finish construction on time, we need to start in the 2017 window,” Michael Gougherty, a senior planner at WETA, told the board.

He explained there are three windows of time — between June 1 and Nov. 30 in 2017, 2018 and 2019 — in which WETA can perform construction because of wildlife considerations.

Each “window” would be a narrow opportunity to complete key construction milestones, dictated because WETA must prevent negative effects on Bay wildlife caused by construction vibrations, Gougherty said.

“When you’re driving piles,” he said, “you impact species” in the water.

Those piles are a key foundation of the new piers, and the narrow construction time concerned the WETA Board of Directors. Board member Tim Donovan asked how WETA can ensure engineers are “willing and able to meet the schedule.”

“It’s a huge issue,” Gougherty said, noting 300 to 400 piles needed to be drilled. Half of those need to be in the water during the 2017 window, he said.

That narrow window of time to finish the project is part of why CH2M Hill was the lead choice to provide construction management services, said Gougherty.

After the meeting, Gougherty told the San Francisco Examiner that CH2M Hill will provide a specific engineering expertise that doesn’t exist in-house at WETA.

The contract was approved with up to $3.3 million for CH2M Hill, which has experience with “similarly complex marine construction projects,” according to WETA.

“CH2M had a very clear view of the project risk,” Gougherty told the board.

Another major ferry expansion was approved at Thursday’s meeting. Dakota Creek Industries, inc. was awarded the contract to construct three new 445-passenger ferries.

WETA will spend up to $62 million for the new boats, and in its contract approval noted Dakota Creek constructed six sister vessels that serve on San Francisco Bay to this day.

Those vessels have traveled more than 3 million miles and carried more than 13 million passengers, according to WETA.

The fact that the reliability of the vessels is 99.1 percent, according to WETA, despite “the harsh operating conditions of San Francisco Bay,” is a “great testament to the original workmanship of the Dakota Creek Shipyard.”

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