Richmond ferry to SF begins Thursday, ushering new era for water travel in the Bay Area

Richmond ferry to SF begins Thursday, ushering new era for water travel in the Bay Area

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San Francisco Bay Ferry

RICHMOND — For the first time in seven years, the Bay Area will inaugurate a new ferry route — part of an ambitious effort to harness one of the region’s most underutilized assets when it comes to getting people out of their cars: The San Francisco Bay.

Promising an alternative to the harrowing Interstate 80 grind from Hercules all the way down to the Bay Bridge, a new Richmond terminal will on Thursday begin offering weekday commuter service to San Francisco. It’s the latest upgrade in a series of expansions for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), also known as the San Francisco Bay Ferry, which runs routes from Vallejo, Oakland, Alameda and South San Francisco.

For commuters braving what’s been dubbed one of the Bay Area’s worst commutes, it can’t come soon enough, said Richmond resident Sharon Butticci.

“I’ve been dreaming about this for years,” she said. Since moving to Richmond seven years ago, the former Sausalito resident has longed for the ease of access to San Francisco the Sausalito ferry offered. “I’ve been missing it. I just don’t want to drive across the bridge and deal with all that traffic.”

The San Francisco Bay Ferry may carry just a fraction of the total commuters — carting around 10,000 passengers daily compared to 270,000 drivers crossing the Bay Bridge and 432,000 riders hopping onto BART — but there was a time in the mid-1930’s when ferries ruled the bay waters, shuttling more than 150,600 passengers each day.

Those numbers petered out after the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built and may never return, but there are plans to vastly expand the ferry network by growing the landings during peak-commute hours from five to 25 by 2040 and quadrupling the number of passengers — which actually might make a meaningful dent in traffic, said Arielle Fleisher, who studies transportation policy for SPUR, an urban planning think-tank.

“It’s about giving people more choices besides the car, and giving people better ways to get around the bay,” she said. “And, frankly, (the ferry’s) got a great view.”

Already, the water authority has opened two new maintenance facilities in Alameda and Mare Island and is expanding its downtown San Francisco terminal — all of which will allow more frequent service, said Nina Rannells, the agency’s executive director. Beginning Thursday, WETA will have 12 vessels operating on five separate routes, including the new Richmond line, with two more coming soon, but the goal is to eventually increase that to 44 ferries operating on 12 routes.

“Everything is coming together,” Rannells said. The number of riders boarding the ferries has doubled in the past six years as congestion worsens on Bay Area freeways and bridges, she said. “We can barely build boats fast enough.”

Initially, the Richmond ferry is expected to handle around 400 daily round-trips, growing to between 1,700 and 1,800 when it’s fully utilized, said Chad Mason, WETA’s project manager for the Richmond terminal.

The ferry will also be a significant driver of development in a city that has largely been passed up by the Bay Area’s real estate boom, said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt. A private operator had tried to implement ferry service from Richmond to San Francisco in the early ‘90s, he said, but a sluggish economy and the lack of public subsidies made it unfeasible. It didn’t help that the ferry was slow, Butt said, with trips lasting just shy of an hour. WETA’s ferry will shuttle passengers in roughly 35 minutes.

Brooke Maury and Sarah Rosen sold their San Francisco apartment for a condo in Richmond’s Marina Bay neighborhood, roughly a mile-and-a-half walk from the new terminal, in anticipation of the ferry’s opening. Both commute into San Francisco, packing themselves into overcrowded BART cars, an experience they’re looking forward to leaving behind.

“We’re really excited about it,” Maury said.

But the promise of more development is stoking fears that those who can afford to live in “one of the last bastions of affordability in the Bay Area” may see their rents rise, said Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond city councilmember. Rents for a one-bedroom apartment averaged $1,696 in Richmond in 2018, compared to $3,261 for San Francisco, according to the website, RentCafe.com.

Maury shares his commute on BART with a number of service workers heading into the city, and he wonders where they’ll go if rents grow.

“That is a concern, for sure,” he said

For the first time in 15 years, Richmond is seeing new construction that will increase the supply of housing, Butt said. But, Martinez said it’s also important to include affordable housing in new developments around the ferry terminal.

“There is a lot of interest from developers,” he said. “We need to prepare for these changes and make sure economic development doesn’t equal gentrification.”

Ultimately, the city and WETA would like to have weekend service to support events at the Craneway Pavilion and ferry tourists to the Rosie the Riveter-WWII Home Front National Historical Park. That had been in the plans thanks to Regional Measure 3, the $3 toll hike over six years that voters approved last year. But two lawsuits challenging the increases have held up the money. WETA would have received an additional $35 million annually to support additional services.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “We really have a lot of transportation needs in the Bay Area.”

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