A New Proposal for a Berkeley Ferry

by Paul Kamen
Chair, Berkeley Waterfront Commission
August 2001

There is reason to question the viability of a high speed ferry network for San Francisco Bay as contemplated by the Water Transit Authority (WTA). Water is very sticky stuff, and moving fast on water, especially in a small vessel, will always be an expensive proposition in terms of construction cost, fuel consumption, and emissions. Ships are wonderfully efficient when they are big and slow, but terribly wasteful when they are small and fast.

This proposal takes a different tack. It is based on a modern ferry that is new and comfortable, but operating at a low speed appropriate for the relatively short route. Because of the low speed, fuel efficiency is high and emissions are low.

The economic analysis is based on zero subsidy, so ticket prices are high. However, it is proposed that passengers with bicycles get on free, so the service is accessible to a wide range of incomes and demographics.

Recognizing that a ferry system is not a cost-effective solution to regional traffic congestion, this proposed ferry service scenario is developed as a local amenity and community resource, and not necessarily as a useful element in our transportation infrastructure.

Note that the WTA is not free to follow a similar path. Their clear mandate from the State is to develope a ferry proposal that addresses traffic congestion as its primary goal.

Existing local models and markets

Ferry service from Tiburon and Sausalito to San Francisco is the closest operating model to a possible Berkeley to San Francisco service. Since the last Berkeley ferry experiment following the Loma Prieta earthquake in '89, there has been significant demographic change in West Berkeley. At the same time, congestion on the Bay Bridge has increased and BART parking lots and trains are at capacity. At the present time, the Berkeley market for ferry ridership more closely resembles that of the Sausalito and Tiburon routes. These services operate without subsidy at a ticket price of $6.75 each way. They use a mix of older monohulls and catamarans, and only some of the Tiburon schedule serves the Ferry Building. Most of the departures are for Fisherman's Wharf.

Basic parameters: cost, speed, and capacity

The proposed Berkeley to SF service would use a new boat, and serve only the Ferry Building. It would cost about $4 million to build (estimate based on Boston's new 150-passenger 33-knot Harbor Express) and about $400/hour to operate (estimate based on the SF Bay Regional Ferry Plan of '92, adjusted for inflation). There is reason to believe that this route would be at least as marketable as the Sausalito and Tiburon service.

My back-of-envelope economic analysis, after some conservative assumptions, indicates that a service using one new 18-knot 149-passenger ferry would break-even at a ticket price of about $6.50 each way, assuming only 50% average occupancy and seven round trips per day. (Three for the morning commute and four in the afternoon and evening, allowing for some informal morning carpooling and for the longer departure time range for return commutes.)

About a third of the revenue is needed to pay back the purchase cost of the vessel, and about two-thirds of revenue is for operating expenses. The picture improves dramatically with subsidies.

$6.50 each way is relatively expensive, but consider that it costs $25 or more to drive to SF and park for the day. If the accommodations are nice and the ride is smooth and reliable - and if parking is not a problem - then there is an excellent probability that the market will support this high ticket price.

Possible objections

1) Fuel efficiency - fast ferries are wasteful

The route is only about six miles long, so a relatively slow ferry going a leisurely (by modern standards) 18 knots would still only spend 20 minutes in transit once it cleared the Marina. There's no market advantage to going faster on this route. By the time people park, walk up the gangway onto the ferry, find a seat, and open up their briefcases and take out their cell phones and computers, anything shorter than 20 minutes would be as disruptive as it would be convenient. And, part of what's being sold is the nice boat ride.

The physics of marine propulsion is such that power is roughly proportional to speed cubed. So the 18-knot ferry only needs one eighth the installed horsepower of the 36-knot high speed ferry of similar size. (But note that because it goes only half as fast, the 18-knot ferry takes twice as long to travel the same distance and so uses one-quarter, not one-eighth, of the fuel per passenger mile when compared to the 36-knot boat.) Low speed puts the fuel rate back in the range of an efficient commuter vehicle, and objections based on high energy consumption are no longer valid.

2) Pollution - fast ferries are dirty

This problem is in proportion to fuel burned, and the slow ferry concept also takes care of that, assuming modern emission controls on the engines.

3) Who does it serve? Ferries are only for the rich

There is some truth to the charge that a market-rate ferry would primarily serve an elite market. One effective way to circumvent this shortcoming is to provide an analogue to the toll-free crossing over the Bay Bridge for carpools.

In the carpool case, we recognize that carpoolers are "treading lightly on the transportation infrastructure," so we give them a free ride over the bridge.

In the case of the Berkeley ferry, we would do the same for passengers arriving by bicycle. Anyone wheeling a bike up the gangway gets on free. This would nicely address any criticism that the ferry service is nothing more than an expensive amenity for the rich. It would be a spectacular compliment to the spectacular new bicycle route into the Marina. The project could expect strong support from the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and other groups with related agenda.

What we would have, then, would be a ferry system designed to serve two demographic levels: one at the top and one near the bottom in terms of ability to pay market rate for ferry transportation.

The rate structure could also take advantage of the low demand on the reverse commute, SF to Berkeley in the morning and Berkeley to SF in the evening. These trips would be sold as deeply discounted monthly ticket books. Because it's unlikely that reverse commuters would be parking near the ferry building in SF, this discount could also be justified in terms of environmental friendliness and keeping cars off the road. It would probably serve a significant number of Cal students and City employees very well.

What could go wrong with this plan?

Recent experience in Richmond suggests that the market is not really strong enough to support the service, and that ridership surveys can be wildly optimistic. The proposed Berkeley service would perform better than the Richmond experiment for several reasons:

1) The ferry would be a new boat with first-class seating and spacious work tables. It would probably be a catamaran or trimaran with long slender hulls for high efficiency at displacement speeds. Long slender hulls provide a very smooth ride with minimal noise and vibration.

Coast Guard regulations impose a sharp increment in construction cost as soon as the number of passengers exceeds 149, so this is almost certainly the most economical size. An efficient low-speed design carrying only 149 passengers could be fairly spacious. With two-thirds of the service cost for operation and only one-third is for purchase, it probably pays to be generous with seating and other onboard amenities. This would be a "first cabin" experience, very much unlike what the Richmond service provided with older boats.

2) The Berkeley market is different. Berkeley has more people in closer proximity to the ferry who can afford to pay the proposed market rate for the top-end level of service.

3) The location is better. For much of the East Bay population, driving to the Richmond ferry terminal represented a wasteful backtracking on the way to the City. But the Berkeley ferry dock is right on the way. The ferry route itself is shorter, but this is probably not as big a factor as might be imagined.

4) Parking. A minimum of 300 parking spaces close to the ferry dock are required, and 500 would be better. (For scale, the existing Radisson Hotel parking lot is about 500 spaces. The parking area at Hs. Lordships restaurant, south of the Berkeley pier, holds about 400.)

There is a strip of land that is already in use for overflow festival parking along the south edge of U. Ave, but it is on State Park property and would require some maneuvering to convert to ferry parking. Other options include the east side of Marina Blvd in the gravel area just west of the western boundary of the Meadow. The gravel parking lots at the South Sailing Basin would also work.

At worst, with no new parking provided, ferry passengers would fill up the various nearby gravel lots and other nearby existing Marina parking, albeit at reduced convenience for all parties.

The Marina needs more parking with or without a new ferry service, especially close enough to serve Cesar Chavez Park on summer weekends and to handle festival events such as the Kite Festival, the Bay Festival, and July 4. A good parking plan would serve these needs on weekends and serve ferry passengers during the week. The best case scenario would be for Eastshore State Park parking to be positioned so that it would help with all of these parking demands.

Organization and management

The City of Berkeley would be the owner of the service, but staffing and operations should probably be contracted out to an experienced ferry or excursion boat operator. The City would also contract with a commercial operator to cover the route with an existing ferry during scheduled maintenance and for emergency backup.

This service could be up and running in two years or less, using the existing ferry dock in the Berkeley Marina.

Long term perspective

The concept does not need to be viewed as an alternative to WTA, but as a parallel effort. Lead time however will be considerably shorter, and this ferry could be operating years ahead of the WTA proposals.

In the long term, the Berkeley ferry would integrate into the final incarnation of the WTA ferry network, and the terminal would most likely move to either a new terminal at the foot of Gilman Street, or to the historic location at the foot of the Berkeley Fishing Pier.