Berkeley, East Bay, Ferries, Oakland, San Francisco

WETA Plans Changes for East Bay Ferries

Alameda Harbor Bay ferry
Alameda Harbor Bay; courtesy of etthekid.

Prior to the construction in the 1930s of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Bay Area citizens crossed the Bay by using the once-thriving ferry service. The completion of those bridges and the rising popularity of the automobile greatly affected how people moved throughout the region. Since then, ferry service has been profoundly reduced, now serving a fraction of the riders it once did, generally tourists and a small share of transbay commuters. But as we know, the next big earthquake is not a matter of if, but when; and when it does hit, any damage sustained by BART and the bridges may require that we go back to the basics, by moving people via ferries. The Water Transit Authority (WTA) was established in 1999 to plan an eventual expansion of Bay Area ferry service and terminals, and WTA finally produced a plan in 2003. Then, in October 2007, the Governor signed SB 976 into law, which established the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), a new agency that would absorb the WTA. The goal of the legislation was to create an agency that would manage and expand Bay Area ferry service in a way that would make ferries a central component of the region’s response to earthquakes and other emergencies. SB 976 required that WETA adopt a transition plan by January 1, 2009, and an emergency management plan by July 1, 2009. Local concerns about the ferry takeover prompted SB 1093, which took effect in September 2008; that latter bill extended the adoption date for the transition plan to July 1, 2009, and assured Alameda and Vallejo that the transition would be informed by a public process. WETA has since produced the two required draft plans, and the agency now seeks public comment on those plans before adopting final versions.

The Transition Plan will facilitate WETA’s transition from an agency that plans to one that actually operates. The three East Bay ferry services — Alameda/Oakland, Alameda Harbor Bay, and Vallejo Baylink — are now owned and managed by the Cities of Alameda and Vallejo, but when the transition plan is implemented, WETA would own, consolidate, and operate these services; no change to current service levels is anticipated. As set forth in SB 976, North Bay ferries will continue to be operated by the Golden Gate District, not WETA. WETA will also develop a five-year financial plan. This includes an operating budget that will account for five ferry routes — those three existing services, as well as two new services (Oakland-South San Francisco and Berkeley/Albany-San Francisco) that are planned to debut in the next few years. It also includes a capital budget, which allocates money to the maintenance of vessels and terminals, in addition to the four vessels and two terminals that will be required for the new routes debuting in 2011-12.

The Emergency Water Transportation System Management Plan is what accounts for the “E” in WETA; the provision of emergency ferry service is a critical component of the agency’s mission. WETA will be more than a mere ferry operator. In the event of an earthquake or other emergency, WETA will activate its own Emergency Operations Center in response to that emergency; this will in turn mobilize all of the Bay Area’s maritime transportation services, and it will allow WETA to coordinate the response to and recovery from an emergency, as well as the restoration of normal operations.  It will implement the approach of California’s Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS); these methods provide a framework for handling emergencies, by dictating the pattern and flow of communication between all agencies that are involved. WETA will carry out its own emergency planning, and it will coordinate with other similar planning throughout the region.

WETA’s future plans are centered on two primary goals: reducing emissions and expanding geographic coverage. Both goals are mandated by SB 976; but the latter goal, which will add regular ferry service to Bay Area cities that do not currently receive it, is particularly central to WETA’s role as a coordinator of emergency response and recovery. In December 2008, WETA launched the Gemini, a 25-knot vessel that has capacity for 149 passengers and 34 bicycles; this marked the beginning of plans for an expanded fleet of ferries that are 85% cleaner than EPA’s emission standards. There are also several proposed ferry routes that were featured in the WTA’s 2003 Plan; these would augment existing ferry service. The additional services include a direct route between Oakland and South San Francisco (utilizing a new terminal at Oyster Point), which will not serve San Francisco — as well as six other routes that would link San Francisco to Treasure Island, Richmond, Berkeley/Albany, Hercules, Antioch/Martinez, and Redwood City. If additional land in Alameda (e.g. Point Alameda) is developed, such a development would also be a natural location for a ferry terminal. The Oakland-South City service is currently projected to debut in 2011, with Berkeley-SF service following in 2012.

WETA seeks public comment on these two draft plans. To contribute your thoughts, use this contact form (through May 18, 2009), send an email to, or you can attend one of the three public hearings scheduled for next week:

  • San Francisco (April 15, 2009 at 12:00 pm): BCDC, 50 California Street, Suite 2600
  • Vallejo (April 15, 2009 at 6:30 pm): Vallejo City Hall, 555 Santa Clara Street
  • Alameda (April 16, 2009 at 7:30 pm): Alameda City Hall, 2263 Santa Clara Avenue


4 thoughts on “WETA Plans Changes for East Bay Ferries

  1. I don’t know how I feel about ferries. Each new line costs something like 25 million, and each line is only projected to carry a mere 1,000-2,000 passengers by 2025 (in contrast, Larkspur gets 5,500). Considering most of these passengers will drive to the terminal, and even the cleanest ferries still pollute more than buses, many of the proposals are pointless, particularly the Redwood City line (why not put that money into Caltrain?), and the Antioch line (who’s gonna ride a ferry for nearly 2 hours?). The Berkeley ferry could potentially be okay (it’s the only ferry with over 2,000 projected daily riders), but it would need to be integrated into the bicycle boulevard network and offer discounts to bicyclists (so they wouldn’t have to pay $6-12 bucks to also subsidize parking). Hercules also has some potential, since it is centered around the new city center development and would have an intermodal terminal with the new Capital Corridor station and WestCat, yet it’s only projected to get 1,000 riders. I get that ferries are important for emergency preparedness, but some of these lines are just plain wasteful.

    Posted by Daniel | 7 April 2009, 11:09 am
  2. I also have many reservations about ferries, including those you listed. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have any time to get into my own opinion on this issue, and limited the post to just a factual presentation. So thanks for the jump-start to the discussion.

    Much of the proposed route expansion is not all that well-conceived. The oft-touted Oyster Point line has a depressing and inadequate connection to Caltrain, creating a more-or-less single-market route that would serve merely several hundred daily riders. On the other hand, ferries really could be critical in an emergency scenario if all other transportation lifelines fail. One question is: what is the minimum ferry investment we’d need to make to create an effective emergency mobilization force, without redirecting too many regional monies to what is bound to remain a low-ridership service?

    Posted by Eric | 7 April 2009, 11:21 am
  3. If you read the full plan as it is currently drafted, there are just scores of problems and assumptions.

    First and foremost my question (in an email I sent to WETA) is WHY? Why did we need WETA (other than to fullfill the “dream” of Ron Cowan (a support and ally of Don Perrata). Seems rather stupid for the state to be buying the ferries from the cities, just to create this boondoggle. And WHY did the GG Ferries get spared, they have the biggest boats on the bay, seems like they would come in handy during an emergency, right?

    The two ferries they plan on using for the Berkeley to SF line are only going to carry 199 passengers. One is going to cost 11million and the other 17 million. The terminal and ferry landing is currently estimated at 35 million (even though they have no clear idea on where that landing might be, and you know once they do, there will be years of lawsuits because of it). The are also buying two “spare” boats, that will only hold 149 passengers. A typical bart car seats 65, so during a commute it is safe to assume that there are 100 people per car. So the average 10 car train holds 1000 people during commute hours. That would take the berkeley ferry 5 trips to move the same amount of people as a single bart train. Sounds like an expensive trip.

    WETA is also expecting the Port of Oakland, and the City of Alemeda to continue to provide funding (both in actual dollars and in kind funding by the Port for free parking). When these ferries are no longer run by Alameda, what motivation does either entity have for spending their money on the ferry service? Part of the funding from Alameda comes from their street light assessment fee’s!

    Lastly, it seems like WETA is making assumptions, based on things that they don’t talk about in their plan. The very popular weekend service to Fisherman’s Wharf from Alameda/Oakland is made possible by the fact that the marine services are provided by the Blue and Gold Fleet. B&G also runs the Vallejo ferry for the city of Vallejo. The Harbor bay ferry is run by a different company, and thus only goes to the SF Ferry Building and back. Also, none of the GG Ferries land at the Wharf, they also only go to the Ferry Building. B&G does run it’s own ferry service to Sausalito, but no public money goes into that line). The Vallejo, Alameda Oakland, and Harbor Bay lines would all be put up for bid as a single service contract. If B&G bids but does not win, does this mean the end to the Wharf landings? (B&G owns or leases the rights to those landings, and would want to charge a fee for another service to land there). Or maybe WETA just expects to end the service to the Wharf and instead tell everyone to drive to the Wharf instead?

    Posted by Chris Norman | 15 April 2009, 2:22 pm
  4. Can you give me timeline of ferry coming to antioch? Thank you!

    Posted by Chris valenta | 2 November 2010, 2:16 pm

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