South San Francisco ferry service off to rocky start

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerHop on: The ferry between South San Francisco and the East Bay must boost ridership to keep its $2.7 million subsidy.

It’s still early, but the new ferry service between South San Francisco and the East Bay will have to make a lot of improvements to maintain its generous funding subsidies.

The service, which launched in June, receives about $2.7 million annually from Bay Area bridge toll funds administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s lead transit agency. However, those funds are contingent on the ferry achieving certain service standards related to its farebox recovery rate — a measure that determines how much of its operating cost is reimbursed through passenger fares.

Under the terms of its agreement with the MTC, San Francisco Bay Ferry — the regional agency in charge of the service — is supposed to maintain a 30 percent farebox recovery rate. After a month of operation, it was at 7.3 percent, a mark that has raised concern at the MTC.

“The substandard farebox recovery rate is certainly a cause for concern,” said MTC spokesman John Goodwin.

“We’re obliged to monitor it regularly, but right now it’s far too early to draw conclusions about the service. It’s also not unusual for new transit services to take time to find their markets.”

The MTC is giving San Francisco Bay Ferry three years to meet its standards — something that would require a fourfold increase in its farebox recovery rate. If the agency cannot achieve those rates, the MTC has the option of pulling its $2.7 million subsidy — a total that comprises more than 80 percent of the ferry’s operating budget of $3.4 million.

Spokesman Ernest Sanchez of San Francisco Bay Ferry said the ferry can meet the farebox recovery marks in the next three years. He said it’s working on innovative marketing and communication tactics to reach new customers, along with looking at possible tweaks to scheduling.

Ridership also has increased, from 2,960 passengers in July to 3,580 passengers in October, Sanchez said.

Expected development in the growing biotech industry in South City should buoy those numbers even more in the future, Sanchez said.

“It’s a challenge, and it’s going to take a while, but we’re confident in our system,” he said. “We believe that we’re offering a competitive product that is going to meet the needs of an important ridership segment.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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