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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ferry Tale

Air Date: Week of

Jeff Hoffman reports from San Francisco on a proposal to vastly expand commuter ferry service on San Francisco Bay. The plan is an attempt to relieve highway congestion and auto air pollution by getting thousands of commuters off the region’s highways. But, it has run into unexpected skepticism from some environmentalists.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Ocean waves, bird calls)

CURWOOD: Before the car, before bridges, tunnels, and freeways, residents of America's great maritime cities got around by ferry.

(Splashing water)

CURWOOD: Today, facing gridlock, smog, and the high costs of new freeways and rail systems, some port communities are looking once again at water transportation. Proponents of the ferry revival say the boats are cost effective, environmentally benign, and just about the most enjoyable way to commute. In the San Francisco Bay Area, planners are thinking about following the path of New York City and Seattle by greatly expanding ferry service. But as Jeff Hoffman reports, the plan has created a wave of controversy.

(Footfalls on the deck)

HOFFMAN: At seven in the morning, Laura Miller pushes her bike onto a ferry in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco. Ms. Miller, who works for a downtown magazine, drives 15 miles from her home, parks her car, and then bikes to the boat. She says the complicated trip is worth the effort because it keeps her off the roads heading into the city.

(Ferry engines)

MILLER: I've taken buses. I've ridden in one when I've missed the ferry. And I of course have driven my car in. It's terrible driving in alone, and it's really tough on those roads out there. People are very aggressive and by the time you get to work you're frustrated and uptight. You've been cut off a couple of times.

HOFFMAN: The 20-minute ferry ride, on the other hand, gives Ms. Miller time to talk with friends, read the paper, or just take in the panorama of bay and mountains. She says the ferry is much faster than driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, and it doesn't contribute to the traffic jams and smog that form around the city most mornings.

MILLER: There's a million people by themselves in their SUVs out there. Right now they're stuck on that bridge. (Laughs)

HOFFMAN: The Sausalito ferry is one of five routes that carry several thousand commuters each day to San Francisco's financial district. But that's a far cry from the 100,000 who rode the ferries daily before the region built its bridges and freeways. Today that road system is jammed and projected to get much worse, as the region adds two million new residents in the next two decades. Some here say the only way to prevent gridlock and a sharp decline in air quality is to turn back to the bay in a big way.

McPEAK: We are a region defined by this magnificent body of water. We're the only major region in the world with such a significant body of water that does not fully utilize it for transportation.

HOFFMAN: Sunny McPeak is president of the Bay Area Council, a business group that has proposed an ambitious new system of 70 high-speed ferries and 28 terminals that would link nearly every city on the bay and its major airports. The system would rival the world's leading urban ferry systems in Sydney, Australia, and Hong Kong. The California legislature has approved an agency, but so far no funds, to build and run the system. Ms. McPeak says it would cost $2 billion.

McPEAK: That's a lot of money, truly. However, when compared to the other choices in this region and what will be spent, becomes very cost-effective. The repair and construction of a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is $1.3 billion. Freeway interchanges alone are anywhere from one-and-a-half million to two-and-a-half, three-hundred million.

HOFFMAN: Ferry proponents say the system would also help improve air quality by getting tens of thousands of vehicles off the highways. One might expect environmentalists to be enthusiastic about such a proposal, but it's actually been a tough sell.

LONG: For a long time the environmental community, in effect, I think most Americans, have had a view of ferries as being clean and green. And now that myth is being punctured. I think it's important we're going to have to de-romanticize the ferry, and, you know, clearly we've had a love affair with the ferry for a long time, that we're going to have to get over as a result of this new data.

HOFFMAN: Russell Long runs the San Francisco-based Bluewater Network. A study by his group contends that ferries would make the air dirtier.

LONG: Ferry boats are ten times more polluting on a per-passenger basis than people driving in their cars, and 23 times more polluting than people taking the bus. So, we're concerned that by putting a new ferry system into San Francisco, we're going to be reversing the past 25 years of hard-won gains in decreasing air pollution.

HOFFMAN: The pollutant Bluewater is most worried about is particulates, or soot, from the ferry's diesel engines, which can lodge in the lungs and cause severe health problems. Mr. Long says the increase in soot emissions would more than offset the reduction of carbon monoxide from less auto travel. While Mr. Long's study is far from conclusive, it has prompted powerful environmental groups like the Sierra Club to back away from their support of the ferry plan. Others have challenged Bluewater's findings. Ian Austin, a transportation consultant who helped write the ferry plan, says his own research shows that autos create three times the total emission of diesel ferries.

AUSTIN: If you look at the big picture, you'd say that it just makes a lot of sense to address the individual environmental issues -- there are some -- come up with the solutions and move ahead, rather than stopping the whole process because of one particular issue that really, I think, is being misreported.

HOFFMAN: Both critics and supporters of the ferry plan want the state to conduct a study comparing emissions from ferries and other forms of transportation. But even if that issue is cleared up, there are other environmental concerns. The Bluewater Network warns that scores of ferries buzzing around the bay could pose a hazard to water fowl, marine mammals, and sailboats. Then there's the impact on the shoreline.

(Ferry engines, beeps)

HOFFMAN: The North Bay city of Vallejo, which has run a ferry service for over a decade, is paving over part of its waterfront to provide more parking for ferry riders. Vallejo Transportation Manager Pam Belchamber supports putting more boats on the Bay, but she says it's not for every community.

BELCHAMBER: You would have to construct docks and dredge, build parking lots, bring bus service in. It can change the face of a waterfront. And so, the community has to decide, what do they want their waterfront to look like? Do they want it to be a heavy trafficked area with lots of people? And that can be great, you know, that's not a negative thing. But each community has a different view of what their waterfront should look like.


HOFFMAN: If the Bay Area does build a big ferry system, it will be taking a page from its own history.


HOFFMAN: Ferries first appeared here in the mid-19th century. Majestic 300-foot-long sidewheelers, some with stained glass windows and elaborate dining rooms, carried railroad passengers from back east to their final destination: San Francisco's graceful Ferry Building, the Grand Central Station of the Pacific coast.


HOFFMAN: As the region grew into a modern metropolis, commuters began riding the ferries. By the 1930s they were making 50 million trips a year. The boats connected to comprehensive streetcar systems around the bay. State Senator Don Perata remembers riding the ferries and trains as a boy.

PERATA: Where I grew up in the city of Alameda, there was -- the Red Trains came all the way down the spine of the city to the "mole," which was the terminal for the ferry. You got off that, you got on that, and you crossed over to San Francisco or to Marin County, and it was a coherent transit system.

HOFFMAN: But the system unraveled after the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in the 1930s. By the 50s, only vestiges of the ferry and streetcar system remained. Senator Perata, who sponsored legislation to create the new ferry system, says something like the old feeder system is necessary.

PERATA: They're either a lot smarter than we were in those days, or they just developed things more naturally. But can we redo that? I don't know, but I think we'd have to replicate the concept if we're going to make this thing work.

HOFFMAN: But others say a major ferry system just doesn't make sense in an era when population and congestion have shifted inland to places like Silicon Valley. Rod McMillan, a senior planner at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, says some routes proposed by the Bay Area Council would have few riders and require huge subsidies.

McMILLAN: Where the congestion is increasing the most is down in the Santa Clara Valley, and that's one location where ferry services probably won't serve well. A lot of it is on the land side. It's not trans-bay type services. So I think what we really need to look at, it's not only ferry services, and I think ferry services are part of the mix, but it's other things like rail and like bus and carpool and vanpool.

HOFFMAN: Some supporters of the ambitious ferry plan say the transportation commission is cool to the idea merely because it wouldn't have control over the system. Whether or not that's true, California's balkanized politics and the pollution concerns almost guarantee that any significant expansion of ferry service on the San Francisco Bay won't happen soon. Still, the proposal has sparked a serious discussion. Next year the legislature will consider funding for environmental and ridership studies. Meanwhile, the few dedicated ferry commuters will continue to tough it out.


MILLER: I feel good now. I'll be ready to go when I sit down at my desk.

HOFFMAN: Disembarking at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Laura Miller straps on her helmet and prepares for the three-mile bike ride to her office. She says there's no good rail or bus connections. It's an energizing trip, but most commuters aren't so hardy. Without more routes and reliable connections, most Bay Area commuters will likely stay off the water and in their cars. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in San Francisco.



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