Solano Vote Axes Fourth Vallejo Ferry

Not everyone gets to celebrate 20 successful years in business by having investors cut their funds.

Photo by Francisco Arreola

By Kristen Bole
Published: July, 2006

Not everyone gets to celebrate 20 successful years in business by having investors cut their funds. But that’s the fate that voters just handed the Vallejo Baylink Ferry system.

Solano County voters resoundingly defeated Measure H in the June 6 election, which would have raised the county’s sales tax a half-cent, to 7.875 percent. That tax was projected to create $1.6 billion over the next 30 years to fund much-needed transportation infrastructure throughout the county, including a new I-80/SR 12 interchange, widening SR 12 and expanded transit for seniors and disabled citizens, among others.

Hidden in the fine print, though, was $190 million that the tax would have raised for improvements on Vallejo’s Baylink ferry system, commuter rail service and buses, including over $1 million per year for ferry operating costs.

It was enough to add another boat, said Daryl Halls, executive director of the Solano Transportation Authority, which had authored the measure. That includes roughly half the capital needed to buy a new, $11-12 million high-speed boat, as well as the funds that passenger fares don’t cover in running the new service.

Vallejo Baylink Advisory Committee said passenger fares typically cover 60 to 70 percent of the total operating costs, which run about $3 million per boat. Fuel sucks up 40 percent of that, with the remaining costs split 35-25 between labor and administration/operations.

To add service, you have to have that annual operating support, Halls said. Without a local sales tax, they won’t be able to fund the operation of an additional ferry.

The sales tax also would have provided the $10 million that Vallejo currently lacks as the local match money needed to finish its Baylink parking garage. The garage is slated to include 1,200 parking spaces to accommodate ferry and other public-transit commuters. Now, that will take several years to find.

This was a lost opportunity, there’s no doubt about that, added Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area’s transportation planning and financing agency. I don’t think there’s any doubt that ferry ridership in that corridor will grow.

The Vallejo ferry service now carries about 680,000 passengers each year. The MTC projects that will double by 2030.

Halls said there’s a bigger issue here, as well: A local commitment to these projects sends a clear signal to Washington that they matter.

We’ve been pretty successful in getting federal funds (for these transportation projects), Halls said. But if you have a local match, it’s a lot easier to get that.

Originally founded in 1869 by the California Pacific Railroad, the Vallejo ferry is one of the oldest routes in the Bay Area and among the most successful. While it closed for nearly 50 years after the Bay Bridge went up, the ferry system re-opened for commuters in June 1986.

As with most Bay Area ferries, Vallejo’s Baylink got its current sea legs after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, when the Bay Bridge closed and commuters took to the water. After the bridge re-opened, Vallejo became the most successful route in retaining its emergency ridership. The 1997 BART strike also helped the system by pushing commuters off the congested roads and onto ferries.

Vallejo’s Baylink now offers 14 round-trips daily to San Francisco – carrying 2,500 to 3,000 passengers per day – with three boats. Last month, it celebrated its 6 millionth rider.

But it struggles to provide the current service while also maintaining the boats it has. This Spring, Baylink cut three of its 14 regular sailing times (7AM from Vallejo and both 4:30 and 6:45PM from The City) for four months while its slowest ferry undergoes warranty repairs in Washington. It is due to return in July, when it will allow the two faster boats to undergo their own repairs.

Solano and Napa County, where voters defeated a similar tax last month, are among the few urban counties in California without a separate transportation tax, which help other counties cover their transportation-related costs.

All of those counties, except Marin and Sonoma, passed their transportation tax measures in the late 1980s or mid-90s, before a two-thirds majority was required to pass them.

Ironically, the same measure nearly passed two years ago in Solano County on its second public vote, when 64 percent of the voters approved the tax, just shy of the two-thirds majority needed. The time before, it passed with 60 percent. This time around, the third, only 46 percent okayed it, despite full endorsement by elected officials, environmental groups and newspapers.

Solano has been the poster child of ‘close but not quite’ on this, Halls said, attributing the latest result to low voter turnout (39 percent this June, versus 76 percent in 2004) and general voter opposition. So they’ll wait, and try again. This was a tough ballot to be on, he said. The plan we have is the right plan. It’s just a timing issue.