Captain David Clark, Golden Gate
Ferry Boss, Back in the Saddle
Retakes Helm after Heroic
Four-Month Cancer Fight
interview by Wes Starratt
Yes, for four long months, the manager of the
Ferry Division of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and
Transportation District was caught up in a personal medical
catastrophe. Now back on his feet once more, and raring to go is
the leader not only of the Golden Gate Ferries, but a driving
force in the regional ferry system. Sorely missed by everyone, we
say, “Welcome back, David” and “Stay in good health!”
It wasn’t easy, but we finally caught up with
David Clark at home and on his cell phone, as usual. He was happy
to talk with us about the Bay Area ferries and where they are
We are delighted to see you back after four
long months in the hands of the medical establishment. How does it
feel to be back?
Fortunately, I am feeling very strong and
anxious to get back into the fray and participate in the ongoing
operation and future development of ferry services … not only
the Golden Gate Ferries, but also of the regional ferry plan.
Speaking of the future of ferry service on
the bay, have you had an opportunity to review the Water Transit
Authority’s recently released Implementation & Operations
Plan (I&OP) for a regional ferry system?
It is certainly a beautiful document with great
importance for the future of water transit in the Bay Area. We
look forward to working in conjunction with the WTA to support the
plan and help the system move forward in today’s economic
What do you think about the possibility of
funding the system in today’s economic climate?
I hope that the complex political issues
associated with bridge-toll increases for the other Bay Area
bridges can be resolved so that water transit can get its share of
the revenue and move the WTA proposal forward. Certainly, the
extensive work that has been done by the WTA should put it in a
good position to be able to get strong interest and support. With
such a great document as the I&OP and the forthcoming
Environmental Impact Report, I would think that they have as good
a chance as possible to be able to sell the program to the state
What about selling it to the public?
That is going to be complicated. There are many
interest groups. It seems to me that they’ve done a great job of
being receptive to the various interests and to giving every group
something to feel good about. So, hopefully, between the interest
groups and the other agencies in the region and the general
public, the program can gain momentum and move forward as the
vision originally intended. If they can overcome the, hopefully,
temporary economic environment, they should be able to move the
Rider-ship on ferries and other transit
systems has dropped since the year 2000. Does that send out any
alarms that the public may not accept a regional ferry system?
No, I don’t think it does. The year 2000 was a
banner year, and it was also an unrealistic year to compare with
future rider-ship, whether ferries or transit in general. We are
better off to compare current rider-ship to earlier years. Golden
Gate Ferries is now seeing rider-ship stabilize as of the first
few months of the 2002 fiscal year, with rider-ship actually
creeping back up a bit. It is a big mistake to point to 2000-2003,
which as everyone knows, was a false bubble in the economy
Nevertheless, do you think that there needs
to be a stronger marketing program for ferry service?
Some may find it surprising that WTA included
little, if anything, for marketing in its plans.
That was actually one of my comments to the WTA
on the I&OP a couple of days ago. More details on marketing
would be beneficial to the program…not only marketing, but we
need to take a strong look at the design of the ferry systems to
see how it works with the individual customer…how effective it
is when it comes to the rider’s departure point in the morning,
the connection on the city side, and the return in the evening.
All ferry systems compete with other modes of transportation, from
the bridges to buses and rail, and must provide as efficient a
transit system as possible.
How is the Golden Gate Ferry system doing in
the current economic picture?
The Bridge District, even with the toll increase
on the bridge, is facing a significant financial shortfall over
the next five years
Is that due largely to the high cost of
seismic upgrading on the bridge, which the district must largely
bare on its own with little state or federal help?
The problems are multifaceted. They are
certainly impacted by the cost of the seismic retrofit of the
bridge. They are also impacted by the rising costs of the ferry
and the bus transit divisions…in combination with the reduced
utilization of all three: the bridge, the ferries, and the buses.
All combined, they have created a financial situation similar to
that faced by most public agencies these days…where we are all
going to have to be as creative and aggressive as possible to
improve our efficiency and our financial performance as we
preserve as much of our service as possible.
Has the heavy cost for seismically upgrading
the bridge had a heavier impact on the Bridge District than on
other ferry systems?
Well, I am not so sure. The new East Span of the
Bay Bridge together with the seismic upgrading of the other Bay
Area bridges are multimillion dollar projects that could
dramatically impact the potential for other ferries, as well as
the WTA, to receive a portion of the bridge toll increases. So, I
think the other transit systems are facing the same issues,
although perhaps our case is more direct. There are no sales taxes
only bridge tolls that support the Golden Gate Bridge District and
its three divisions.
What about some specifics, such as parking
fees at Larkspur Landing and charging for feeder buses?
Our Board of Directors in November will be
considering a first service cut that will not dramatically effect
the Ferry Division until the Winter of 2003 when they may decide
to eliminate some mid-day winter service to Sausalito. We have an
Advisory Committee comprised of board members and staff members
who are looking at how we can go beyond the first level to enhance
efficiency and provide the best possible service for lower dollar
amounts in future years. It will probably be a five-year plan to
refine and redesign our bus and ferry services to best serve the
Some of the feeder bus routes are likely to be
discontinued, while the focus remains on the more heavily used
feeder routes. A fee-based parking system, which should have a
very reasonable fee, is likely to be implemented within the next
five years. But, the Bridge Board is very sensitive to the fact
that the cost to our loyal ferry customers has to be carefully
The fact is that we do need to enhance our
bottom line through increased efficiency, controlled costs, and
reasonable fare increases. Right now, the fares on the Golden Gate
Ferry on a per passenger mile basis are between 20 and 30 percent
below the other current fares in the Bay Area, and some of those
fares are scheduled to be increased within the next few weeks, as
I understand it. So, we are significantly below the norm in our
What interest does the Bridge District have
in establishing North Bay ferry service at Port Sonoma at the
mouth of the Petaluma River?
Depending on the funding that is available, I
believe that the Golden Gate Bridge District would be very willing
to discuss the potential for ferry service out of Port Sonoma. The
board members that I have talked with, as well as our General
Manager, seem to be genuinely positive, but certainly there are
large economic issues to be resolved. It is a fact that Port
Sonoma is in our primary corridor, unlike any of the other
proposed ferry routes. So, I think that, if there is a single
route where we could be a partner with the WTA, it would be Port
Sonoma, which is a very dynamic and exciting future ferry route
that could serve the community in a dramatically beneficial way.
Do you have any comment on the future of Bay
Area ferry service after we get through the current decreased
level of patronage?
I would say that the vision embodied in the
original Blue Ribbon Task Force Report that became the WTA was a
vision with great importance and potential. I look forward to
working in cooperation with the Water Transit Authority in
whatever final form the initiative takes to coordinate our system
with theirs, as well as with the other operators in the Bay Area,
to provide better service to the public. Certainly, there is a
tremendous potential for cross-bay and north and south bay service
to be very effective in connecting communities throughout the
region. We think that the regional ferry service will have a very
positive impact on the Bay Area.