Comments on the
Water Transit Authority
Program EIR

by Paul Kamen, N.A.
Chair, Berkeley Waterfront Commission

January 28 2003

I once knew an environmental planning consultant who retired and bought a small farm. He knew that he wanted to be a farmer, but, being a planner, he also wanted to plan his business strategy according to a rigorous methodology.

"The trouble with farming today," he informed me shortly before leaving the city, "is that farmers don't know anything about planning. They make critical business decisions based on hunches and intuition, and it usually leads them seriously astray."

So he set out to plan his farm carefully. He started by selecting three crops that he believed represented a reasonable range of products: asparagus, strawberries, and pineapples. Then, he established three levels of production intensity, plus of course a "no project" option in which he would plant nothing, for a total of four possible scenarios.

For alternative one, he would lease some additional land, plant 100 acres of each crop, build an extensive pumped irrigation network, and contract with a pest control specialist who would continually monitor the crops and apply chemical controls.

For alternative two, he would plant only about 50 acres of each crop and install a passive irrigation system, and use a minimal amount of pesticide as needed.

For alternative three, he would plant only five acres of each crop, and use existing water resources with minimal fertilizer and biological pest controls.

His analysis rejected the "no project" option as not meeting the initial goal of "farming" (even though this was the only option found to be "revenue-neutral").

Alternative three, he determined, would not provide sufficient pest control for the strawberries or water for the pineapples, and the low production volume would not make efficient use of the necessary investment in farm machinery.

Option two made better use of capital outlay, but costs would still exceed revenue and the irrigation was marginal.

Option one provided enough water for high production, but the size of the projected annual loss was well beyond the retired planner's ability to sustain the operation.

So he decided, based on a rigorous and objective cost-benefit evaluation process, to go with alternative two.

I didn't hear from my friend for several years, and then one day on a road trip I happened to be driving near his farm. So I stopped by to see how he was doing.

"Well, the asparagus is doing fine," he told me with a newly acquired country drawl, "and sometimes I get some real tasty strawberries, even though I never seem to make any money off them in this market. But tarnation, I lose my shirt on the pineapples. Another couple years and I'll be flat broke."

What the farmer had completely missed in his rigorous analysis of system alternatives is that some crops are more viable than others, regardless of the scale on which they are grown.

WTA has made exactly the same mistake. The three alternatives presented in the programmatic EIR only distinguish between a minimal program, a medium program, and an intense program. The EIR makes no attempt to sort out which routes will be viable and which routes will be difficult. All three options include both long routes and short routes, high speed and low speed, routes crossing a body of water and routes paralleling a long shoreline.

The data is there, and it is possible, with some effort, to back out the information that the report should have been organized around. But in its present form, the most important conclusions are deeply buried.

To be more specific: Short low-speed routes that cross heavily trafficked bodies of water make sense. These routes have the highest demand and the lowest operating costs. For example, Berkeley to San Francisco could be a successful route at any one of a wide range of possible schedule densities, from very sparse to very frequent. Similarly, Treasure Island to San Francisco is extremely viable, and an SFO-OAK airport shuttle might also be attractive because of the very high-value transportation nodes at each end of the route. But long high-speed routes paralleling shorelines are unlikely to ever approach break-even, regardless of which scenario they are thrown into. Even assuming high subsidy levels, it is clear that some kinds of routes meet the WTA's goals much more effectively than others. These distinctions have not been made.

It is recognized that this EIR is at the programmatic level and does not attempt to evaluate individual sites or routes. But that should not have prevented the report from identifying and evaluating the various parameters that contribute to the success or failure of San Francisco Bay ferry routes in general.

Furthermore, just as the planner-turned-farmer made some incorrect assumptions about irrigation and climate, WTA has missed some important details that affect the outcome of their study.

Required water depth, for example, is dependent on the speed, size and design details of the ferries. Yet in the study, required channel depth is assumed to deep enough for the deepest draft ferries now operating on the Bay, and only very expensive surface effect designs are mentioned as a mitigating design strategy. This deep draft assumption appears to have been made up front, without allowance for significantly reducing displacement vessel draft in response to problems associated with dredging. These problems could not have been fully quantified before the study began, and channel depth should have been one of the variables.

Shorter routes using slower and smaller vessels need less depth and less dredging. This is not reflected in the EIR's evaluation, and this error has somewhat concealed the advantages of some of the most viable routes.

Terminal site selection is also non-optimal in at least one case: The assumed Gilman Street location for the Berkeley-SF route adds unnecessary distance and dredging requirements compared to the closer and deeper locations near the Berkeley Pier. Again, site-specific planning may correct this problem, but the EIR should have contained the necessary general findings to provide future site planners with better guidelines for comparing and evaluating nearby candidate site alternatives.

Environmental effects are also tied closely to speed, and therefore also tied to the length of the route. Keep in mind that installed horsepower varies by approximately the cube of speed, so an 18 knot ferry requires only one eighth the installed horsepower of a 36 knot ferry of similar size. With comparable emission controls, engine emissions will vary in proportion to power. Therefore it is questionable to pursue new technologies for fuel conservation and emission controls when simply slowing down will accomplish the same result and then some. Conventional power plants with mature emissions control technology (as used on land-based applications) will easily allow ferries to meet very strict criteria.

The same is true for wake profile. The use of long slender displacement hulls to save fuel and minimize wake is a mature and low-risk technology. There is no need to study new wake-eating hull forms or expensive air-supported technologies - as long as speeds are low.

Allowing the EIR to discriminate between more viable and less viable route types is the key. If the EIR had recognized that some kinds of routes will work better than others, especially in the context of a region that already contains a network of freeways, bridges and tunnels, then the analysis would have been free to show the most effective and reliable mitigation strategies to satisfy the key environmental constraints.

The four options should have been organized around different route and service characteristics, not around different intensities of what is essentially the same mix of ferry services.

I happened to run in to my planner-turned-farmer friend just the other day. "My farm finally went bust," he admitted, "so I'm back at my old job, consulting for environmental planning firms and writing environmental impact reports."

He seemed happy to be working productively again. But then he started babbling incoherently about getting into the boat building business...

Paul Kamen, N.A.
Chair, Berkeley Waterfront Commission