Editorial: A commuter solution all around us

People living near the world’s great harbors — Sydney, Vancouver, Hong Kong, New York and Baltimore come instantly to mind — seem to make far more use of water transportation than Bay Area residents. Oddly enough, San Francisco’s waterways are among the most magnificent, and yet, arguably, they are the more lightly traveled.

That is why officials at the San Francisco Bay Area Transit Authority, looking at mounting commuter congestion over the next decades, saw that right before their eyes — before all our eyes — was a splendid place to move people without pouring more asphalt and adding rail. Why not ferry more people in and out of The City, just as they did before the bridges were built?

The Ferry Building doesn’t have to be all about touristy shops and gourmet cuisine. Active ferries still operate there, welcoming and sending off throngs of commuters a day. These are people who’d rather float across the scenic Bay, having parked their cars at Vallejo, Larkspur and other such surrounding sites, than creep across the bridges.

So the Transit Authority developed a plan to increase ferry ridership from 4 to 12 million yearly commuters over the next 19 years. The planners’ thinking anticipates huge population growth in Solano and Contra Costa counties, as San Francisco workers discover the joys of home ownership out there beyond The City.

The Regional Ferry Plan, say officials, will cost $646 million to add 28 lines and eight terminals. No doubt their excitement follows the passage, earlier this month, of the state’s massive transportation bonds.

We like the plan, with the caveat that such projections — infuriatingly and invariably — falter as technology and other factors deliver surprises. Current kinks in telecommuting — those computer freezes that bedevil you moments before a document deadline, for example — could be history long before the terminals are constructed, thereby taking unanticipated numbers of workers off both roads and ferries. And by the year 2025 those dollar figures could look dramatically off-mark.

As well, we’d like to see an enlarged role for private water transit, not only ferry operators but pilots of water taxis. Obviously, if those population projections are accurate,there will be sufficient demand for such efficiency-providing, free-enterprising craft. (Fact-finding trip to Hong Kong, anyone?)

One more thing. Surely these plans could provide for a motorcar-carrying ferry or two? We know, the local political class has pushed its animus against flivvers so far that our local ferries carry only two-footed passengers. But for some people, parking yonder o’er the Bay steals as much time as the planners want to restore to them by taking them off Interstate 80. (Fact-finding trip to Seattle, anyone?)

What’s surprising is that it took so long to start noticing these possibilities. Bureaucratic imagination may be an oxymoron, but we’ll take it.

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