Ferries & Peter Grenell
|Bay Crossings proudly
announces the addition of a Peninsula editor, print veteran
Sam Tolmasoff (above). This is the first of an ongoing
monthly series by Sam.
By Sam Tolmasoff
There is a peculiar and disquieting sound on
certain summer days that 101 produces just north of Whipple at about
8:30 AM when the traffic is stalled out. When things are well beyond
slow and annoying and have established themselves at parking lot
still. When things are so thick that everyone has realized that they
have slipped into relative time (everyone knows that time slows way
down in a traffic situation) and accepted that they are where they
are for a while. This is the point when hitting the horn or flipping
anyone off is meaningless except for the angriest and most
There is nothing to do except sit back, breathe
and wait while the day becomes quiet, yet heightened.
Even though the day is clear and lovely and the
exhaust fumes are no more than fender height, cautious drivers look
around, check their seatbelts, close their windows and turn their
radios and air conditioners up a notch. It doesn’t help; you can
still hear that haunting, sub audible noise.
A striking young blond in a Miata with the top
down glances nervously around, instinctively looking for someone who
might protect her. It takes a while for anyone to identify what he
or she is being subjected to. It is the near absence of sound; it is
the faint presence of natural sound. It is that small water surface
sound of the surface of the nearby bay (you almost forgot it was
there, huh?). It is the seldom noticed call of seabirds and of a
warm morning breeze moving through the remaining grasses, around the
corners of endless rows of buildings and sun bleached road signs. It
is the sound of the Peninsula before the construction of 101 broken
only by occasional train whistles. It is the way things sounded when
the bayside towns were connected by elegant ferryboats moving on the
surface of the bay. Perhaps even the time when the steamer fare from
Alviso to San Francisco was fifty cents.
Deep in the memories, the imaginations, in the
very souls of those citizens possessing a certain sweet depth of
sensitivity, a longing is evoked. It is a nameless longing going
largely unrecognized but definitely felt. It is a longing for a
better time, a time when the Peninsula might be the paradise it
could have become.
I imagine a time when the freeways have outlived
their usefulness and all sixteen lanes of concrete have been pounded
to rubble and hauled away to be recycled like the shadowing
structure that once blighted the Embarcadero. Only tiny segments
will be left, as reminders of what we once contended with, like the
sections of the Berlin wall that remain.
It could be so. The November election isn’t far
off and Measure A is a small but definite step towards that better
time. It is a step forward that we must be prepared to make. There
are among us visionaries. People who hold definite images of that
better time our children might live in.
Peter Grenell, general manager of the San Mateo
County Harbor District is such a man. The S.M.C.H.D. operates the
Oyster Point Marina for the City of South San Francisco. The Oyster
Point Marina is slated for new ferry service to and from San
Francisco and the East Bay. Peter’s image of a ferry system on the
bay is one that would efficiently transport an appreciable number of
commuters taking at least some cars out of the gridlock. These
people would have a pleasant and dignified trip. A commute that
would be the best part of the day rather than the worst. A commute
in which a ferry passenger could sit comfortably, have a cup of
coffee, plug in a laptop and arrive at work in a positive state of
mind, hitting the ground running rather than recovering.
Peter is a man whose feet are confidently on the deck, his eyes are
on that better future and his sleeves are rolled up in readiness for
dealing with the task at hand. He has come a great distance from the
Manhattan he was born in 1939. His love of ferryboats came to him
One of his earliest memories is of his father
taking him on the Hudson Ferry to Fort Lee New Jersey. He speaks
with delight of riding the Staten Island Ferry as a boy. ”It was
only a nickel!” he says. Today the system he loved as a boy is free
and it efficiently moves 70,000 passengers a day!
To hear him speak of such things is to realize
that Peter Grenell has the soul of a poet, the crystal mind of a
scientist and the spirit of a crusader. Even though he is skilled at
innovation, he always seeks the most practical and cost effective
answers to problems.
Watching him move around his office and speaking from his
encyclopedic knowledge of the bay and ferry systems, it is
impossible not to catch some of his enthusiasm.
We do live in troubled times, and our beloved Bay Area is not one of
the most geologically stable places on earth. It is unpleasant to
think about, but we will have another earthquake. Worse, is the
situation with those-who-would-be-terrorists that seeks to cause us
harm? These are things we must consider.
Peter describes a series of simple, basic docks in
each community down the bayside. In such an emergency as above,
ferryboats could dock at these, even in relatively shallow water and
thus maintain a line of transport to move people and supplies while
maintaining a line of communication. This is in addition to the
obviously immediate and practical value of the ferry system.
Peter went to Maplewood High School in New Jersey and then to
Antioch College in Ohio. Antioch was one of the colleges to
institute a “hands on learning, work study program”. Previously such
an approach had been limited to trade schools. Antioch’s approach
suited Peter just fine.
His first experience was to work as an engineering
aide in Indiana. “Imagine a kid from New York who’d never been in
the Midwest before. I loved it!” he said. His second round of
work-study saw him working at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in the
post Sputnik space program. His job there was to spin his bosses
around in a centrifuge, riding as an observer with a stop switch if
it was needed.
These enriching experiences led the engineering
major to take a degree in philosophy. Talking to Peter, this seems
somehow perfectly logical.
From Antioch he traveled to India and studied
social sciences; specifically,
Tribal welfare. He lived in several tribal villages, carrying only
his backpack and his sleeping bag. Included in his travels was
spending time in the province of Madhya Pradesh, which was the place
that inspired Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Keep in mind that this was before there was a
A book he read while he was in Southern India,
“Garden Cities of Tomorrow” by Ebenezer Howard, inspired him to
return to the U.S. and did graduate work in city planning at M.I.T.
He returned to India in 1964 to do graduate work,
and then worked for the Ford Foundation in Calcutta. He returned to
M.I.T. in 1967 and in 1968 he went in to private consulting. In 1972
he again returned to India, this time to work with UNICEF.
Peter and his wife came to San Francisco in 1974 and he did private
consulting. In 1978 He went to work for the California State Coastal
Conservancy. Another period of private consulting from 1983 to 1985
when he became Executive Officer for the Coastal Conservancy.
Private consulting again in 1985 including working for the Moss
Landing Harbor District.
He came to the San Mateo County Harbor District
in1997 and did post graduate work in housing and urban development
and eventually worked there for UNICEF for two years. He and his
wife came to San Francisco in 1974 where he worked as a private
consultant and then joined the California State Coastal Conservancy.
After a period of working again as a private consultant, he returned
to the Coastal Conservancy as Executive Officer. In 1994 he was
again a private consultant including Moss Landing Harbor District.
He came to the San Mateo County Harbor District in 1997. San Mateo
County is indeed lucky to have such a man as the General Manager of
the Harbor District.