A high-speed, 400-passenger ferry for Marin riders is on its way to offer much-needed relief during the morning commuter crunch.
Faced with several severe challenges -- projects involving its existing seven-boat fleet through 2019; regulations that cap traffic; and demands for service in Larkspur, Sausalito and Tiburon -- Golden Gate Ferry needs another boat to fill continuing gaps.
After a deal to purchase a used Rhode Island ferry fell through earlier this year, Golden Gate officials were able to secure a one-year lease of that same vessel. The district board unanimously approved the $2.8 million deal on Friday.
"We're looking forward to welcoming the Millennium into our fleet for 2019," said Priya Clemens, district spokeswoman. "It will be a reliable and quick vessel that will help fill the burgeoning demand."
Golden Gate officials had hoped to purchase the Millennium from Rhode Island Fast Ferry, but the engine does not meet the California Air Resources Board emissions standards and the upgraded engines do not fit in the vessel. The district will need approval from the state board to use the Millennium as a temporary ferry, Clemens said.
The daily charter will cost $6,850 a day for a yearly total of about $2.5 million. Additional costs will cover sailing the boat from its home port to Florida, then Mexico and finally Larkspur, according to a staff report.
The boat has a speed of up to 37 mph and, like the district's existing high-speed vessels, has four engines and water jets, providing the redundancy that keeps it moving in case one system goes down.
The catamaran was designed by Incat of Australia. The boat, which is 121 feet long and 34 feet wide, was built on the East Coast and is similar in size to Golden Gate's 400-passenger M.V. Del Norte.
The series of vessel projects that necessitate another ferry are scheduled through 2019. The projects include new engines for the M.S. Marin and a major refurbishment of the M.S. Sonoma. The M.S. Marin was supposed to be completed in June but is now almost four months late. Work on the M.S. Sonoma is now delayed until late fall and possibly early spring.
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Another setback is the status of the 450-passenger M.V. Napa, which has been out of service since the end of August for maintenance. The M.V. Del Norte, which carries 400, had been substituted in to cover its route, but that ferry was sidelined last week for repairs and to test the bilge system.
Clemens said the year lease will allow the district to continue its hunt for a 500-passenger ferry and and also to seek permission to increase services between Marin and San Francisco beyond the 42-trip limit.
A new ferry could cost up to $30 million for design and construction. The ferry agency has applied for an $18 million federal grant that would require a $12 million local match, Clemens said.
In order to increase ferry trips, the California Environmental Quality Act requires that the district produce an environmental impact report, which could take up to 18 months, Clemens said. Such a report would address wave action and its effect on marshes as well as traffic impacts on land, among other issues. The district would solicit public comments on the plan before the board of directors could consider approval, Clemens said.
With traffic on Highway 101 worsening, the ferry has grown in popularity, especially for Marin riders boarding at the Larkspur terminal, where sold-out ferries during the morning commute have doubled since last year.
San Rafael resident Victor Mora, who commutes by ferry almost daily, said it has become the choice mode of transportation because it's comfortable, offers bay views and is usually faster than busing or driving -- except for when there are sold-out ferries.
"More rides and faster ferries will definitely help," he said.
The Millennium is expected to arrive in December.