Exploding ridership expected for ferries

While rail transit agencies speak glowingly of 5 percent to 9 percent gains in riders throughout the last year — some of the best since 2000 — plans to more than double ferry services in coming years will far eclipse such figures, add millions of riders and remake travel around the Bay for the next generation, according to ferry proponents.

The move to add eight new ferry terminals to the existing seven over the next six to 10 years is already under way, with four planned for the East Bay, where a population explosion is anticipated over the next two decades. Routes from Antioch/Martinez, Hercules, Richmond and Berkeley/Albany — all to San Francisco — will cater to the growing number of residents wanting to exchange cramped city living for a home of their own in the suburbs, according to officials.

“Our [plan] anticipates tripling ferry ridership from 4 million to 12 million commuters per year by 2025, drawing the majority from cars,” Water Transit Authority spokeswoman Shirley Douglas said.

With more Bay Area residents willing to put up with longer commutes in exchange for homeownership, Solano County’s population is projected to jump 31 percent from about 440,000 to 577,000 by 2030, according to Association of Bay Area Governments estimates. Contra Costa County is expected to grow from 1 million to 1.3 million over the same time period.

The added East Bay ferry routes are anticipated to remove nearly 7,000 commuters a day from Interstate 80, ranked as the Bay Area’s most congested highway, according to San Francisco Bay Area Transit Authority. At full build out in 2025 that will equate to about 6 million drivers a year, according to Water Transit Authority estimates.

“Ferries can play a small but important roll in complementing existing transit services and they’re going to have their highest and best use parallel to the most congested transit corridors,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Bay Area nonprofit Transportation and Land Use Coalition, citing I-80 as a prime example.

The typical Bay Area commuter now spends about 72 hours a year stuck behind the wheel, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute. And with the regional traffic delay projected to climb to 262,000 hours in 2025 from the current 148,000 hours as another million people pour into the Bay Area, lost time will only grow longer, officials said.

Not to be left out, South San Francisco, Redwood City and Treasure Island will all add routes connecting to San Francisco and the East Bay, joining routes already in operation from Alameda Point, Harbor Bay (Alameda), Vallejo, Sausalito, Larkspur and Tiburon to San Francisco. Construction plans for nearly all the new ferry terminals include high-density housing within one-half mile as a way to encourage public transit use and safeguard the success of ferry operators, according to John Goodwin at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“Ferries enhances travelers’ choices, so if their car is in the shop or they don’t want to drive for a day they have a viable option,” Goodwin said.

While various operators — including the Blue and Gold Fleet out of San Francisco, Alameda-Oakland Ferry and the city of Vallejo — manage current routes, the Water Transit Authority will oversee the new routes to increase ferry efficiency and coordination, according to Douglas. So far undetermined is whether the agency will outsource day-to-day operations.

All told, the Regional Ferry Plan plans to spend $646 million to add 28 lines and eight terminals. In addition to encouraging transit use and reducing highway congestion, ferries will offer a vital link to the East Bay should the Bay Bridge suffer damage in an earthquake, as happened in 1989, Goodwin said.

Work on the first of the eight terminals is scheduled to break ground next year in South San Francisco. The route will connect to San Francisco and the East Bay in 2008 carrying workers to South City’s thriving biotech industry, officials said. Progress is also being made on the next two terminals, Berkeley/Albany and Hercules, Douglas said.

While ferries won’t ever replace BART, which shuttles about 170,000 people a day across the Bay on average, or the Bay Bridge, which carries another 280,000 a day, ferries makes sense in an area so closely connected to the water, Goodwin said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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