RM3 Offers Huge Promise for the Bay’s Ferries

The Bay Area suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, overwhelming our freeways and current transit systems.

Lines like the one shown here that wrap around the front of the Ferry Building have become more and more frequent. The beginning of this line is shown in the photo on the opposite page. Those at the back of this line were turned away and had to wait an additional 45 minutes for the next ferry. Photo by Joel Williams


Published: July, 2017


The Bay Area suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, overwhelming our freeways and current transit systems. A recent Bay Area Council poll revealed that 83 percent of Bay Area residents believe that our elected officials must treat Bay Area traffic like an emergency and work together on major transportation solutions to be implemented in the next few years.


To that end, preparations are currently underway by the California State Legislature and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to bring a new bridge toll funding measure, called Regional Measure 3 (RM3), to Bay Area ballots in 2018. In anticipation of the new measure, regional agencies have begun discussions over priorities for programs and projects.


Ferries should be at the top of the list, as they offer one of the only near-term capacity enhancement opportunities to help alleviate the region’s transportation crisis, vessels can in theory be deployed on new routes in less than a year.


As anyone who has experienced crowded ferries can attest, the current funding and service levels are not enough. The Vallejo route is already operating at 94 percent capacity during peak hours and the Alameda/Oakland route is at 88 percent. Add a Giants game to the mix and there are frequently passengers left behind, sometimes waiting for more than an hour for the next boat to arrive.


The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA)—the agency that oversees the region’s ferry network—currently relies on Regional Measure 2 (RM2) bridge toll funds to subsidize its existing operations, and does not have access to other sources of state or local transit revenue that support other transit agency operations. RM3 presents the only real opportunity for the system to grow. The State Legislature and MTC are currently meeting with stakeholders and will be developing project lists over the summer months with the goal of bringing a RM3 bill to the floor by September 1, 2017.


WETA has formed a strategic plan of proposed principles and investments as a part of these discussions about RM3. The plan presents a vision for expanded and enhanced ferry service throughout San Francisco Bay—including enhanced services on existing routes, establishing new routes and services, and continuing to develop emerging projects. This program would require $49 million in new annual operating funds and $725 million in capital funds, including $575 million to support new assets and $150 million to provide local match for rehabilitation and replacement of existing system assets. This plan also presents the case for greater support and flexibility from RM2 funds to support the continued operation of existing services.


The proposed RM3 investment principles support development of a program of projects that can be delivered within the next 10 years and would offer near-term congestion relief to the Bay Area’s congested bridge corridors. With new operating funds from RM3, WETA could rapidly enhance frequency on existing routes and double capacity across the system, raising the capacity to the equivalent of one and a half lanes of traffic on the Bay Bridge or 30 BART cars during the peak hour.


Ridership across the WETA system has nearly doubled in recent years to 2.5 million passengers annually, but ridership remains a fraction of the 55 million passengers that crisscrossed the Bay in the 1930s prior to the construction of the bridges. There is great opportunity to further scale operations and restore the proven regional transportation system from 80 years ago to strengthen regional mobility and provide a crucial emergency response capability in the event of an earthquake or other unplanned events.


New operating and capital revenue from RM3 could also enable WETA to expand service to new locations such as Mission Bay, Richmond and Redwood City. The integration of a more dynamic fleet size can also open up southern parts of the bay, as well as northern areas near the Port of Sonoma and out the Carquinez Strait. New high-speed, smaller 50-passenger vessels can land at existing marinas and harbors and do not require extensive landside infrastructure or Bay dredging, thereby delivering the service much more quickly than larger vessels. Future ferry service could provide the region’s residents a comfortable, congestion-free commute to all corners of the Bay.


At full buildout, the WETA proposed system will offer 15-minute or 30-minute peak service frequencies and 29 vessels serving 14 terminals throughout San Francisco Bay. This level of investment would increase peak period ferry capacity by close to 80 percent, providing the equivalent of 474 transbay buses during the morning peak period. Ferry ridership would likely increase to more than 20,000 daily travelers, up from 9,000 today. The program also can be delivered relatively early, with the first phase of enhancements opening within two years of funding.


In addition, the WETA system will set the national standard for minimized environmental impact by investing in the cleanest Environmental Protection Agency standard Tier III engines. Because the majority of ferry riders would otherwise drive single occupancy vehicles, improved and expanded ferry service would eliminate millions of cars from the region’s congested highways each year. WETA also supports 115 maritime union jobs on the WETA vessels and in their maintenance facilities and terminals.


Bay Crossings urges you to encourage your local officials to support prioritization of ferries in the RM3 expenditure plan to make a truly generational impact on the region’s transportation system. And of course, you will need to support and vote for RM3 when it appears on local ballots in 2018. The future economic vitality of the Bay Area depends on it.


To find out who your State of California representatives are, visit findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov and ask your Assembly Member and State Senator to support funding ferry system expansion through RM3 funding.