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Ferry Follies

[whitespace] ferry boat Loved Boat: North Bay commuters and officials are titillated about a ferry boat plan that South Bay critics say will cost billions and do nothing for Silicon Valley, except use up meager federal funds.

Christopher Gardner



Local media and politicians have joined the love-in for the proposed Bay Area-wide ferry system. But the $2 billion system would do little, if anything, to relieve congestion in Silicon Valley.

By Jim Rendon

LIKE A CONTEMPORARY George Jetson, Ron Cowan for 20 years traveled to work in the sky. Every morning he'd lift off in his personal helicopter to commute from his home in Marin across San Francisco Bay to the city of Alameda. Under the roar of the blades, he saw the Bay Area laid out below him, looking like a developer's scale model. Houses and office buildings crowded along the bay's shore while lines of stagnant traffic crowded freeways and bridges. In the middle, the shimmering bay lay like a blank blue slate, and Cowan had a vision.

Cowan's own housing development, a cluster of 15,000 residents on Harbor Bay Isle in Alameda, was completely surrounded by water. San Francisco stood two bridges and an hour away in morning traffic, but was only six miles across the bay.

"I didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out it was a good idea to connect Harbor Bay Isle to San Francisco with a ferry," Cowan says.

A year and a half later, Cowan's boats were shuttling residents of his Harbor Bay Isle development to San Francisco and other local terminals.

Today, Cowan sits as chairman of the water transit task force for the Bay Area Council, spearheading an increasingly popular plan to spread aqua-transit to Bay Area communities such as Vallejo, Martinez, Mountain View and Redwood City. In its fervor to implement the nostalgic billion-dollar plan, the task force hopes to use coveted federal transportation funds and bridge tolls. Opponents think using such a big chunk of these funds may make it harder for other cities to get funds for bold transportation initiatives, such as a rail system ringing the bay which might benefit more commuters. And critics say that a ferry system with San Francisco as its hub, and only one terminus south of the Dumbarton Bridge, would do little, if anything, to solve transportation problems in Silicon Valley.

"A ferry system will not work at our end of the bay," says Gus Morrison, mayor of Fremont, the fastest-growing city in the Bay Area. "The 1.6 million people in Santa Clara County and 1.4 million in Alameda County will be excluded from any benefits from this thing."

Ferry Tale

AS IT TURNS OUT, the few potential ferry terminal sites proposed for the South Bay are miles away from any of the valley's employment centers. They are also located in and around sensitive wetlands where dredging and construction would disrupt important habitat and stir up toxic metals.

But in the year since public meetings on the proposed ferry system began, Morrison and a handful of environmentalists have been the only critics of the billion-dollar plan whose bold and romantic vision has swept up support everywhere it has landed.

"This whole process has been a love-in," Morrison says.

And it is not hard to see why. Who wouldn't want to commute to work on a boat? Cowan and the plan's backers at the Bay Area Council paint a rosy picture of the ferry system's benefits: quick, convenient commutes on the open water.

New high-speed catamaran boats will whisk hundreds of riders from San Rafael to the South Bay in just over an hour, they say. The boats proposed in the Bay Area Council's plan will have outlets and high-speed modem hookups for laptop users. Designated cell-phone areas will appeal to mobile yakkers. Live music and fine dining are promised, a throwback to the ferrys' peak in the 1930s, when star chefs worked on the boats as often as they did on Nob Hill.

Much of the proposal is strewn with nostalgic details from the height of ferry travel, when 50 different fleets moved 60 million passengers a year. But the Bay and Golden Gate bridges, put up in the late 1930s, killed off the ferry companies. By 1958, water transit was extinct.

The council hopes this proposal will spark a whole new generation of water travel. Ferries, says Cowan, are vital to transit in the Bay Area. They are the missing links that tie together disparate transit systems at opposite ends of the bay, providing quick, convenient connections between houses in the North Bay and jobs in the South Bay.

Money Pit

BUT CRITICS OF THE PLAN say the price tag, anywhere from $600 million to $2 billion, is too high. The council pledged to avoid competing with existing projects for funds. Instead it will push for increased bridge tolls and federal money, says Russ Hancock, vice president of the Bay Area Council. But Morrison says that no matter where the money comes from, transit funds are so limited that funding one project inevitably hurts another.

Additionally, he says, the Bay Area Council's understanding of transit problems here in Silicon Valley is oversimplified and inaccurate. The council, after all, decided to hold its annual economic conference in San Jose this year, the first time in the 27-year history of the organization the conference was not held in San Francisco.

The proposal focuses on San Francisco, a perfect idea for 50 years ago, Morrison says. But today, Sunnyvale is home to more of the Bay Area's largest public companies than San Francisco. Milpitas has more than Oakland.

Yet in the system's first phase, Moffett Field is the only proposed ferry terminal site south of Redwood City. San Leandro is the southernmost terminal proposed in Alameda County. In San Francisco, on the other hand, the council has identified six potential terminal sites.

But the planners defend their project, citing involvement by former Mayor Susan Hammer and other South Bay politicians.

"The mayor [Gus Morrison] is wrong," Hancock says. Though there will likely be only one terminal here, more ferries may run out of this terminal than any other, he says. It all depends on demand. "The only problem is finding spots in the South Bay," Hancock says.

That problem is not likely to improve.

Terminal Illness

SAN FRANCISCO BAY sits like a paint-roller pan, with its depths around San Francisco, becoming shallower and shallower as it approaches the South Bay. South of the Dumbarton Bridge, the bay is scarcely more than 4 feet deep, and at low tide much of it becomes mud flats.

Getting a ferry into a place such as Alviso or Moffett Field would take lots of continuous dredging to clear the channels of the silt that naturally builds up at this end of the bay. And that, according to Craig Breon of the Santa Clara Audubon Society, is no small matter. The South Bay's muck contains the residue of many decades of development, industry and mining, including mercury, lead and other heavy metals that have settled into the sediment. Dredging will only stir up the toxic brew.

And dredging is not the only problem.

Alviso, the logical and most attractive option for a terminal site that could take workers to business areas on Zanker Road and North First Street, is already out of consideration. Some of the best salt marsh in the South Bay borders Alviso, providing a home to three endangered species. Any destruction of the marsh is illegal.

"The water district has proposed digging a channel through salt ponds and wetlands [to Alviso]. The likelihood of doing that is bleak," Breon says. "I don't see how in the current environmental context that could go forward."

Environmental problems with the Alviso site proved so severe that it was taken out of consideration by Cowan's task force.

The proposed terminal site in Fremont also has proved to be unworkable. Most of Fremont's waterfront is within the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, a 29,000-acre reserve that encompasses nearly all of the viable salt marsh in the South Bay as well as 10,000 acres of salt ponds used by Cargill.

"They just picked a dot on the map somewhere in the middle of the wildlife refuge. There was no parking, no way to get in and out of it. The Fremont site just never flew," Morrison says.

Moffett Field holds the most promise.

Remote Access

NORTH OF NASA's two Depression-era hangars, past the military golf course and the ammunition bunkers, a small water channel makes its way north toward the bay. Once used as a shipping lane for local produce, the channel is now bordered by the low mound of an abandoned dump at the end of NASA's runway and one of Cargill's coffee-brown salt ponds. The proposed ferry terminal would sit near the ammunition bunker, a mile and a half north of Highway 101, a 10-minute drive from NASA's main gate.

The nearest light rail station, however, is miles away. And the proposed terminal site is deep within an area reserved for approved military personnel and NASA employees.

"We may need to adjust our boundaries to allow transit access," says NASA civil engineer Geoff Lee, pointing out the fence that separates Moffett from Lockheed's sprawling beige buildings.

Environmentally, Moffett Field is more viable than Alviso, but it still presents problems.

"Don't underestimate the environmental and financial obstacles [with the Moffett Field site]," says Lenny Siegel, a Moffett Field base-conversion activist. "The channels become shallow far from roads. Birds nest alongside channels. You've got endangered species," he adds, referring to the clapper rail, the snowy plover and the salt marsh harvest mouse.

Wakes from speeding ferries erode shoreline and damage birds' nests. If ferries are required to slow down, that can add a lot of time to a daily commute, Siegel says.

"Moffett Field is surrounded by wetlands," Breon adds. "Development can fragment populations. If you cut through a tidal marsh, species can't get across the channel. You isolate different populations from each other. Disease could wipe them out at any time. They need large blocks of habitat connected by large corridors."

Dredging and cutting channels can also be problematic. The site the council identified at Moffett needs a channel cut through at least one levee.

Doing the Math

EVEN IF THE MOFFETT SITE becomes a busy ferry terminal, it may do little to curb traffic in Santa Clara County, according to statistics compiled by the Valley Transportation Authority. The traffic mess in Santa Clara County is largely homegrown.

Norma Newman, a spokesperson with the agency, says that 84 percent of the people who work in Santa Clara County live here. No other county houses more than 7 percent of the valley's work force. The ferry would do little to alleviate problems on the knot of freeways that twist through the county.

Trains that provide a transit spine and can run throughout the county with lots of stops are a much better solution for the valley, where jobs are spread over hundreds of square miles, say both Morrison and Breon.

"I don't understand how we can be stupid enough not to have something like BART ring the bay," Breon says in frustration. "It bothers me that to do environmental work in Cupertino I have to drive a car. Before I moved here, I never drove to work." And, Breon says, even with the ferries, he and thousands of other Bay Area commuters would still have to drive to the office.

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From the April 29-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro.

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