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Ferry failing, nobody notices

I wrote last month about the many problems confronting Oakland’s transportation planning process. With civic leaders pushing new ballparks, my thoughts turned to the transportation aspects of planning a major entertainment destination. Two of the announced sites were West of Jack London Square, including a site called Jack London North that has stirred significant interest (and is the most popular plan in a poll at Oakland Local). But it poses some serious transportation access problems, including being certainly outside of what can be considered reasonable walking distance from BART (as is AT&T Park in San Francisco, of course). Without an up-to-date downtown transportation plan or even summary information, it’s hard to blame decision-makers for not knowing the transportation context of grand plans. But what is really striking is how important many downtown plans consider ferry service to be, from Jack London Square developments to the proposed shuttle service, yet those making the plans clearly are unaware of the ferry’s serious shortcomings, including the likelihood that Oakland will lose its ferry service in five years.

All the information below can be found in WETA’s Transition Plan.

The City of Alameda, in partnership with the Port of Oakland and Alameda County (ACTIA), provides a commuter ferry to San Francisco called the Alameda – Oakland Ferry. Its operations are contracted to Blue & Gold Fleets, using two publicly-owned ferries. Alameda, like many other cities, subsidizes this transit service out of its General Fund, and the Port of Oakland also contributes a significant sum yearly out of general revenues, for a total subsidy of about four million dollars. Next year, the new Water Emergency Transit Authority will take over operating the service, but WETA is only committed to maintain current service for five years. So here’s the problem: the Port doesn’t want to keep paying, and WETA wants to expand service to South San Francisco, which will require increased subsidy. With Port and City budgets squeezed, the future of ferry service is very much up in the air.

The present state of ferry service is also a big problem. Everyone seems to assume that people use the ferry, but the truth is that almost nobody rides it. Ridership declined ten percent from 1997 to 2008, and has dropped 15% in the current fiscal year. The ferry’s maximum roundtrip capacity is only 2328 passengers a day,* and average daily ridership is a pitiful 640 people**, with two-thirds of commuters coming from Alameda (though most weekend trips originate in Oakland). Because Jack London Square and Alameda are so far from BART, and SF’s Ferry Terminal is in a major job center, there are several thousand people that could use the ferry to commute, but they don’t. The ferry is slow, expensive, and frankly, unpleasant to ride. There’s no signage, no ferry employees outside of the ferry itself, no waiting area, the ferries’ interiors are shabby, and the snacks and alcohol bar is woefully underutilized. On top of that, tickets are expensive. And what kind of “emergency” transit closes during a rainstorm? Unless WETA addresses these problems, ferry ridership can’t increase significantly enough for the ferry to be a real transit option.

If City officials are going to say that Jack London Square’s ferry pier is a transportation option, or attempt to make any plans including it, Oakland must determine the future of the ferry. The City should ask the Port and Alameda to explain their plans for ferry subsidy over the next ten years. Oakland should tell WETA in no uncertain terms that if they want Oakland to commit to long-term funding, WETA’s multimillion-dollar planned investments in Berkeley and South San Francisco should be matched by investments in Oakland. To determine how much of a commitment public agencies should make, Oakland should also find out what plans WETA has for increasing ferry ridership, because current levels don’t justify a continued subsidy. Local leaders are making plans based around a ferry service that is clearly failing, with no plan to improve it or to ensure it doesn’t disappear. Burdened by a chaotic and unfocused transportation bureaucracy and decision-making structure, it’s unclear who is keeping an eye on Oakland’s transit infrastructure, even as it slips away.

* 388 passengers on the largest ferry, times the six round-trips each workday, is 2328 passengers at maximum capacity.

** 466,818 trips in FY 2007-2008, divided by 365 days, divided by two trips/person, means an average of only 640 people rode the ferry each day during that period. Remember, this includes Alameda as well as Oakland; Alameda passengers represent about 2/3s of the riders, so the Jack London Square ferry terminal is only serving about 220 people on an average day.

Posted in actransit, alameda, downtown, oakland, san francisco, transportation.