The Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority is working on plans to increase ferry service in Mission Bay, Redwood City and Treasure Island. (Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News)

The Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority is working on plans to increase ferry service in Mission Bay, Redwood City and Treasure Island. (Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News)

Ferry expansion planned despite pandemic’s toll on ridership

By Dan Rosenheim

Bay City News

Ridership on Bay Area ferries remains far below its pre-pandemic levels, but that hasn’t put a crimp in plans to expand ferry service greatly in the coming years.

Jim Wunderman, chair of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, on Friday laid out a vision that includes more ferry runs, new ports and the addition of hovercraft to serve communities in the South Bay, where the water is too shallow for traditional ferry boats.

“I believe most passengers who use ferries find their transit experience extremely pleasant and typically very reliable,” Wunderman said. “I suspect there is no more enjoyable way of travelling … being able to get a snack or drink while commuting (and) being in touch with San Francisco Bay.”

Wunderman’s comments came during an hour-long question and answer session with staff and readers of LocalNewsMatters.org.

In the pandemic’s early days, Wunderman said, WETA dramatically cut its service, and passenger traffic fell by 90 percent. But ridership began rising in the spring, a trend that continued during the summer after WETA introduced higher levels of service and lowered fares.

Today, passenger traffic remains relatively low during traditional commute hours, Wunderman said, as large numbers of employees continue to work from home. But off-peak and weekend ridership has been strong.

“Overall, our ridership since July is about 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels, well above what we modeled in our budget,” he said.

Earlier this year, the ferry agency inaugurated a new ferry terminal at Seaplane Lagoon, on the site of Alameda’s former Naval Air Station. Traffic there, about 400 passengers per day, is “solid,” Wunderman said, though only 50 percent of pre-pandemic expectations.

Still, in the not-too-distant future, WETA plans to add new ferry terminals in Mission Bay, Redwood City and Treasure Island. The Mission Bay project — a terminal across from the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center — has been stalled by litigation over Regional Measure 3, a funding measure approved by voters in 2018.

If a court ruling allows RM3 to move forward, it would contribute $35 million in annual operating revenue, but in the meantime Wunderman said WETA and the Port of San Francisco are “working furiously” to find other government funds for the project.

Wunderman said WETA is developing a business plan with Redwood City and hopes to begin ferry service there in 2024, while a ferry dock on Treasure Island is largely completed, with shuttle service to downtown San Francisco set to start this coming spring.

Further out, WETA is talking with Berkeley officials about restoring the Berkeley Pier for ferry service. “I believe the chances of it happening are quite good,” Wunderman said.

And the ferry agency is in discussions with South Bay communities about possible hovercraft service, as well as with several cities along the Carquinez Strait, including Hercules, Martinez and Antioch.

“We should be servicing those communities, providing a water transit alternative to long, arduous vehicle commutes,” Wunderman said.

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