San Francisco doubles down on ferry investment

On May 1, the NYC Ferry public start-up made its justifiably big-deal debut in the East Coast’s media capital, claiming 52,000 riders during its first week of operation. With less fanfare, an older counterpart on the Left Coast is putting up its own huge reinvestment in ferries.

The San Francisco Bay Ferry — operated by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority — took delivery in March of the Hydrus, first in class of seven high-speed, low emissions catamarans that will update the WETA fleet over the next three years. The Hydrus was built in Seattle by Vigor.

The Bay Breeze underway. Kirk Moore photo.

The Bay Breeze underway. Kirk Moore photo.

Passenger numbers have surged since 2013. Veteran ferries like the 250-passenger Bay Breeze, built in 1992 by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, Whidbey Island, Wash., have been refurbished and upgraded. At 135’x38’ the Hydrus dwarfs the older vessels, with capacity for 445 passengers and up to 50 bicycles — no small consideration in a metropolis where high housing costs and congestion makes every commuting option worth considering.

Like New York, the San Francisco Bay Area was once totally dependent on ferry service to connect the city with Oakland and other outlying communities. That changed with the ascendancy of the automobile as California’s apparently dominant life form, but the boats never went away.

Toward the north end of the Embarcadero, the avenue along San Francisco’s waterfront, the weekend crowds include European and Asian tourists boarding the Red and White Fleet boats, with their headphone audio in 16 languages. Nearby at Pier 41, the Blue & Gold Fleet operates its tourist cruises, and the WETA ferries provide service to Oakland and Alameda for the locals.

The first two of the new Incat Crowther-designed catamarans from Vigor in Ballard, Wash. (formerly Kvichak Marine Industries) have a 27-knot service speed and are replacing two of the oldest boats in WETA’s fleet of a dozen. With additional boats to come from Vigor and Dakota Creek Industries Inc., Anacortes, Wash., the agency is putting in $175 million to build out seven new boats and expand the fleet to 16 vessels in all.

The San Francisco Bay Ferry Intintoli underway with the city in the background. Kirk Moore photo.

The San Francisco Bay Ferry Intintoli underway with the city in the background. Kirk Moore photo.

Adding those boats will address capacity issues and increase ridership on the longest route north from Vallejo, prepare for a new Richmond route, and ensure the fleet has enough boats to support uninterrupted service, according to WETA officials.

The new ferries are a big step forward in air quality, too. Propelled by two MTU 12V4000M64 1,950-hp engines with ZF 7600 reduction gears, the Hydrus mechanical package from Pacific Power Group, Vancouver, Wash., features emission controls that achieve Tier 4 standards without using diesel particulate filters.

Using selective catalytic reduction and diesel oxidation catalyst makes the Hydrus the cleanest passenger ferry now operating in the U.S., part of a long-term commitment WETA made for improving air quality as it upgrades service.

Those demands for commuter mobility on the water are increasing. One 2014 report on the WETA plan for its new Richmond terminal starkly described the need:

“Residents of the nine-county Bay Area depend heavily on regionwide and transbay commuting. Despite the use of existing public transit services, including rail and buses, traffic congestion continues to rank highly among the public’s top concerns. Moreover, regardless of economic conditions, the severity of congestion is projected to increase in the future as population and employment in the Bay Area increase.”

The worst congestion in the Bay Area centers on the Bay Bridge corridor and back in 2008 transit officials predicted daily hours of delay on the roads would increase by a boggling 54% across the region.

Bay Bridge traffic “will increase by 50% and be ‘at capacity’ for nearly five hours a day during the morning and afternoon rush hours,” the Metropolitan Transportation Commission forecasted.

Facing those kinds of transit constraints, San Francisco and New York may be pointing a way on the water for other big coastal cities.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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