Bill could nix Alameda rep on ferry board, local leaders say

Bill could nix Alameda rep on ferry board, local leaders say

Michele Ellson

An evening ferry arrives at the Main Street terminal. Photo by Michele Ellson.

City leaders are expressing concerns about a state lawmaker’s proposal to restructure the board that oversees Bay Area ferry service, calling it a power grab by local officials in East Contra Costa County that could cost the Island its say over two local ferry lines and frustrate plans to move one of them to Alameda Point.

A bill by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, that would increase membership on the Water Emergency Transportation Authority from five to seven passed out of committee last week and could soon be headed to the Assembly floor.

The bill would require the governor to appoint a board member from Contra Costa County – which doesn’t yet have ferry service but is eventually expected to get four lines – along with San Mateo and Solano counties. But it doesn’t mandate seats for San Francisco or Alameda, which is home to two of the four existing ferry services now under the authority’s control.

"If I may? A naked power grab," City Manager John Russo said of the bill at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Local leaders said that’s a problem for Alameda, which now has a seat on the board but wouldn’t be guaranteed one of the bill passes as written. They said commuters rely on the ferries as a primary mode of transit – one that may again need the ferries to commute after a catastrophic earthquake, as Alameda did after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which disabled the Bay Bridge and led to the creation of the Alameda/Oakland service.

“We don’t have a BART station, we don’t have (direct) freeway access. So for us, the ferries are our freeway,” Gilmore said. In addition to the Alameda/Oakland service, a Harbor Bay terminal was added in 1992.

A lack of representation could also put a wrench in plans to move the Alameda/Oakland Ferry Service stop from its current perch on Main Street to Seaplane Lagoon at Alameda Point, Gilmore said – a move city leaders believe is critical to the revitalization of Alameda Point and efforts to address the state’s desire to see housing there.

“If we don’t get cooperation from WETA on moving to Seaplane Lagoon and a few other things that we need, it’s going to severely impact our ability to develop Alameda Point, because we’re going to need the ferries to get people on and off that section of the Island,” she said.

Gilmore said Frazier promised to amend the bill to include representatives for Alameda County and San Francisco, though no amendments appear to have been made to the bill after the April 10 hearing. Frazier’s press person said he would not be available to discuss the bill and forwarded a reporter to a staffer handling the bill, who did not respond to e-mailed questions about it.

Alameda handed over control of its ferry services to the authority in 2011. Former Mayor Beverly Johnson sits on its board, as does former Vallejo Mayor Anthony Intintoli – whose city handed over control of its ferry service in 2012.

Elected officials from Contra Costa County – and Antioch in particular – have said they’d like to get ferry service sooner rather than later, and some have expressed frustration with what they see as a lack of consideration from the ferry authority. Antioch’s entire City Council attended last week’s hearing to show their support for the bill, according to other attendees and news reports.

Antioch City Manager Jim Jakel said that it would be desirable for the city to have a ferry service bringing people into the heart of the city’s downtown, which sits on the water along with an existing marina, though he noted that economic and environmental studies haven’t yet been done. Jakel, who noted that Antioch will benefit from $1.5 billion in transportation improvements in the form of new BART service and a widening of Highway 4, said the city has large parcels of land that once held canneries but are now underused, which could potentially be redeveloped around a ferry service.

Jakel, who noted that Frazier once chaired a regional board that worked on East Contra Costa transit issues, said the proposed ferry expansion areas need representation to ensure their needs are taken into account.

“It’s not fair to expect the existing WETA board to have a good and solid understanding of Contra Costa issues without having Contra Costa representation on the board,” Jakel said. “As they expand their operational area, it makes sense to expand the board to include experts from each area it’s serving.”

Gilmore said she doesn’t have a problem with other cities seeking representation on the board, she just doesn’t want Alameda’s ferry riders – who are helping fund the expansion of ferry service to other cities – to lose their voice. A fact sheet put together by city staff says that priority for seats should be given to cities that already have service.

An Assembly staff analysis questioned whether it’s timely to add board members from a county that lacks a ferry route while ignoring others that do, and it suggested other factors, like the number of terminals or routes or percentage of ridership be considered when determining who gets a seat.

The two Alameda lines were expected to carry a combined 648,500 passengers this fiscal year, numbers that they were on track to beat by mid-year, a budget report provided by WETA showed. The Vallejo line was expected to carry 576,670 passengers – numbers it was also on track to beat – while the new South San Francisco line carried about a third of the passengers it was expected to transport by the middle of its first year of service.

WETA’s short-range plan, which extends through 2022, anticipates new ferry service in Richmond, Berkeley and Treasure Island over the next several years; the service is also planning to break ground on a $39 million maintenance and emergency operations center on Seaplane Lagoon in the fall of 2014.

The plan doesn’t spell out steps for creating East Contra Costa service, citing a lack of funds, ridership that would be a fraction of what’s handled by existing services and commute times of up to two hours. But it does contain a $25 million placeholder for new service in either Antioch, Hercules or Martinez – provided one of those cities can put together a sustainable funding plan to operate it.

Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who is the city’s representative on the Alameda County Transportation Commission was skeptical about Contra Costa’s need for a WETA board representative, said the authority’s numbers show that Alamedans have embraced water transit – and she wants the Island’s needs to continue to be met.

“We are at the mercy of that board,” Ezzy Ashcraft said. “It is very concerning to think of not having a dedicated voice.”