Bay Area Council Blog: Transportation Archive


Another Milestone for Regional Ferry Service Expansion

For the second time in as many months, regional ferry service expansion will celebrate another important milestone. The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) will christen a new terminal in Richmond on Jan. 10 near the Craneway Pavilion. Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman, who serves as vice chair of WETA, will be on hand to help cut the ribbon. The Council was instrumental in the creation of WETA and has been an ardent proponent for many years of expanding regional ferry service to take pressure off the Bay Area’s congested highways and other mass transit systems. The opening of the new terminal, which initially will serve four morning and evening ferry runs between Richmond and San Francisco, comes just one month after WETA opened the new Ron Cowan operations and maintenance hub in Alameda that plays a key role in the overall regional expansion of the system.


How an Earthquake and a Helicopter Ride Led to Regional Water Transit

The creation of the Bay Area’s modern-day regional water transit service may have all started with an earthquake and a helicopter ride. Renowned Bay Area real estate developer Ron Cowan was flying to Alameda in his personal helicopter on Oct. 17, 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. Passing over the collapsed upper deck of the Bay Bridge, Cowan had an epiphany that would soon lead him to the Bay Area Council and the birth of a partnership that would launch an audacious effort over two decades to build a world-class regional water transit system.

Cowan’s leadership as a water transit visionary will be celebrated on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018 when the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) cuts the ribbon on the new Ron Cowan Central Bay Maintenance and Operations Facility in Alameda. The complex is a key part of a massive expansion of regional ferry service that is fast reviving a form of mass transit that in the early 20th century carried more than 55 million passengers a year.

“Regional ferry service wouldn’t exist today without Ron’s vision and the partnership he forged with the Bay Area Council those many years ago to make it happen,” said former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr., who was a close friend of Cowan and played an instrumental role in the evolution of WETA over the past 20 years. “It’s an incredible story of how leadership, determination and hard work can move mountains. We’re well on our way to building a regional water transit system that will rival the best in the world.”

As Cowan’s helicopter hovered above the crippled span that fateful day, he thought about the important role ferries could play in helping the region respond to natural disasters and other emergencies. Cowan, who regularly commuted by helicopter to Alameda from his home in Tiburon, already understood the power of ferries to serve as an alternative to traffic-congested freeways and bridges. In the mid-1980s, Cowan had launched his own demonstration high-speed hovercraft service connecting the 900-acre Harbor Bay Isle planned community he was building in Alameda with San Francisco. The service carried 25,000 passengers during its two years of operation.

“The concept of the Bay as a transportation spine was reinforced every day during my flight to work,” Cowan recalled in a 2000 interview with water transit champion and Bay Crossings publisher Bobby Winston. Cowan died in January 2017 at 82. “I would get up to 5,000 feet and look down on the Bay Area, and it became obvious to me that the Bay was a wonderful transportation spine connecting the entire region—and it was practically empty.

“This vision was reinforced when I would travel to other parts of the world, particularly Hong Kong, Sydney and Vancouver, demonstrating how other metropolitan areas had taken advantage of their waterways to develop regional transportation systems,” Cowan told Winston. “I often thought that when I had the time, I would like to lead the charge to create such a system.”

Cowan’s longtime friend, then-state Assembly Speaker and future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr., encouraged him to work with the Bay Area Council and leverage the group’s regional leadership and considerable expertise in transportation policy to bring together the right people to translate the vision into reality. Then-state Assemblymember Don Perata and state Senate President Bill Lockyer were also closely involved.

“Ron Cowan had a deep passion and driving energy to advance a bold vision and compelling concept for a high-speed water transit system in the Bay Area,” said Sunne McPeak, who served as Bay Area Council CEO from 1996 to 2004.

Starting in 1996, McPeak began focusing the Council on achieving Cowan’s vision. She convened top transportation experts and regional stakeholders in a series of conversations to explore the idea of building a comprehensive regional water transit system. From that work, the Legislature the following year approved a resolution formally directing the Council to form a Blue Ribbon Water Transit Task Force comprised of 52 Bay Area leaders representing government, business, labor, environmental organizations and community groups. Cowan chaired the Task Force along with Co-Chairs Willie Brown and Jerry Brown. Over the next two years, the Task Force would develop an action plan calling for the creation of a robust water transit system and leading to legislation by Perata authorizing the formation of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority (WTA) in 2000.

The action plan called for a regional ferry system with 28 terminals, 20 routes and 75 vessels capable of carrying 15 to 20 million passengers per year. At the time, the Bay Area had just six ferry routes with 3.5 million annual riders.

“Our studies made it clear that a comprehensive regional water transit system is the last and perhaps most important piece in the puzzle of creating a truly integrated regional transportation system,” Cowan told Winston in the Bay Crossing interview. “This new water transit system would add invaluable mobility to the entire region.”

The structure was now in place, but there was no funding. Over the next four years, the Council worked with the fledgling WTA and other leaders on a regional plan to invest millions to address the Bay Area’s growing traffic problem. Voters in 2004 approved Regional Measure 2, which provided the WTA with the initial funding it needed to begin buying and operating ferry vessels and building the terminals and other infrastructure needed to operate them.

Another natural disaster in 2005 would further transform and propel regional water transit in the Bay Area. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and highlighted our extreme vulnerability to such disasters. Cowan, who almost two decades earlier had foreseen the role of ferries in regional disaster response, would again emerge as a leading architect in crafting WTA’s next chapter.

Cowan was appointed chair of a Blue Ribbon Task Force that then-Senate President Perata directed the Bay Area Council to establish under the leadership of CEO Jim Wunderman to examine the role of water transit in disaster response and recovery. The group included San Francisco International Airport Director John Martin.

“Ron Cowan was a true visionary.  He envisioned the vast potential of water transit in the Bay Area regional transit system,” Martin said. “He also saw the vulnerability of the region’s transportation system in the event of a major earthquake, and the essential role water transit could play in the region’s recovery.”

The Council would later urge Perata to include $250 million in Proposition 1B to expand WTA’s mandate as a vital part of the region’s disaster response and recovery capability. Voters approved Prop 1B in November 2006, the same year that the Task Force recommended changes to WTA that would encompass its new disaster response role. The transition was formalized in 2007 when the legislature approved a bill by Sen. Tom Torlakson changing the WTA to the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA). A report authored by former Council transportation policy chief Michael Cunningham would provide the framework for WETA.

Throughout this period, the Council has remained a chief advocate and partner. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Council CEO Wunderman to serve on the WETA Board of Directors in 2015, the year before WETA approved a bold plan to dramatically expand ferry service over the next 20 years. The plan calls for increasing the size of WETA’s fleet from 12 vessels to 44, expanding the number of terminals from seven to 16, and growing ridership from 7,500 passengers a day to almost 40,000. New routes will criss cross the Bay, with new terminals stretching from the North Bay to Silicon Valley.

To provide additional funding for WETA, the Council partnered with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and SPUR in 2017 to pass Regional Measure 3, which included $300 million in funding for new vessels, terminals and other infrastructure and $35 million annually for operations. The Ron Cowan Central Bay Maintenance and Operations Facility opening on Dec. 13 is just one of the projects that will benefit from RM2 and RM3.

“Ron saw the potential for bringing back ferries as critical elements in our transportation system,” Wunderman said. “His dream – a comprehensive regional water transit system – will be reality, due in large part to his vision and dedication to the people of Alameda and commuters throughout the greater Bay Area. The entire region can be thankful to Ron for adding significantly to transbay ferry capacity and for being a fierce advocate for WETA’s role in both transportation and emergency response.”


Damning Report Highlights What Council Has Been Saying for Years

A damning report the California Air Resources Board (CARB) released this week confirms what the Bay Area Council has been saying for years about the link between housing and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The report found that California is not on track to meet its aggressive GHG reduction goals and puts much blame on the state’s failure to produce new housing, particularly in areas near major job centers and close to mass transit. In the Bay Area, the housing crisis means more and more commuters are being forced to drive longer and longer distances in search of affordable homes. Those extra miles produce extra tailpipe emissions, which account for 40 percent of the state’s GHGs.

In a letter the Bay Area Council submitted to CARB in March, we warned about the state’s inability to produce infill housing and its effect on our GHG reduction goals. The Council called on CARB to examine all and any tools at its disposal to increase desperately needed infill housing. The letter stated, “If necessary, CARB can mandate that cities approve plan-compliant housing in jobs rich and transit-served communities and implement the vision of “by right” housing laid out in Governor Brown’s 2016 Budget May Revise.” The letter followed by two years a report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute —Another Inconvenient Truth—that reached essentially the same conclusion as the new CARB report.

The CARB report comes as the Council readies its 2019 housing agenda, including continuing our advocacy on a range of reforms to expand accessory dwelling units (aka granny units), strengthen local accountability for meeting housing obligations, increase investment in affordable housing and updating local land use and zoning laws to encourage more housing near transit. The Council is also beginning to examine how parochial traffic regulations, infrastructure and ordinances contribute to increased auto emissions, a topic not addressed in the CARB report. To engage in the Council’s housing policy work, please contact Senior Vice President Matt Regan.


Members Making News: Sutter Health, Heller Manus

Sutter Health’s Mills-Peninsula Medical Center recently announced the launch of a new groundbreaking approach to avoid delays in treating strokes, which are the fifth leading cause of death and the top contributor to long-term disability in the U.S. In a public private partnership, Sutter Health will pilot a new specially-equipped and -staffed ambulance, called a mobile stroke unit (MSU). The goal is to test whether bringing stroke diagnosis and treatment to patients—rather than waiting for them to arrive at the emergency department—improves outcomes. From the outside the MSU resembles a standard ambulance, but inside it equipped with a CT scanner and other technology critical for diagnosing stroke. Initially, a stroke neurologist will ride in the Mobile Stroke Unit. Data gathered through the Mills-Peninsula pilot will contribute to national efforts aimed at demonstrating the mobile stroke unit’s ability.


Heller Manus Founder and President and Bay Area Council board member Jeffrey Heller recently was awarded one of the top honors in architecture, the MIT Architecture Alumni Lifetime Achievement award. Heller joined I.M Pei in receiving the illustrious honor. In making the award, MIT said: Since its beginning in 1984, Heller Manus has established a reputation for influencing architecture and urban design in the Bay Area, nationally and internationally. Heller is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Heller is a major supporter of MIT’s Department of Architecture, where his Jeffrey D. Heller Fund provides graduate student financial support and is helping MIT move the needle on its goal of making the School of Architecture and Planning tuition free for all graduate students. Congratulations, Jeff!

Bay Bridge Traffic

Highways to Hell

On the remote chance Bay Area commuters weren’t aware how awful their commutes are, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission this week released some data to drive home the point. MTC’s annual list of Top 10 worst commute corridors ranked the Bay Bridge as the worst, followed by the I-80 stretch north to Hercules from the Bay Bridge and the segment of Highway 101 through Silicon Valley. The ranking highlights the importance of defeating Prop. 6 on the November ballot and preserving $52 billion in planned investments statewide to improve bridges, roads and highways and help ease traffic. A story in the East Bay Times and Mercury News on the ranking also cited data from the Bay Area Council that shows how the region’s housing shortage is contributing to the gridlock by forcing workers on longer and longer commutes as they search for affordable housing far from job centers. See the Council’s full list of ballot measure endorsements for the November election.


New Data: Bay Area’s Roads Worst in the Country

With absentee ballots arriving in mailboxes and election day just a few weeks off, new data released this week on California’s deteriorating roads should motivate voters to turn out and cast their ballots against Proposition 6. A report by Washington, D.C.-based TRIP found that 71 percent of streets in San Francisco, Oakland and nearby cities are dilapidated and cost motorists an average of $1,049 annually in car repairs. San Jose wasn’t far behind and the Bay Area as a whole ranked as the worst nationally among metropolitan areas. Proposition 6 aims to repeal legislation (SB 1) approved in 2017 to invest $52.4 billion to fix bridges, roads and highways across the state and improve transit. The Council was a leading proponent of SB 1 and strongly opposes Prop. 6.

Also this week, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found a measure (Proposition 10) to allow the expansion of rent control across the state doesn’t have the votes it needs to pass. The Council strongly opposes Prop 10, which would chill investment in new housing and only worsen the state’s historic housing crisis. While the poll results were encouraging, they still signaled the importance of voters turning out and casting their ballots against it. A report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute found that expanding rent control in Alameda County alone would reduce housing affordability for more than 10,300 households. To engage in the Council’s government relations work, please contact Senior Vice President Matt Regan.

See the Council’s positions on state and local ballot measures>>


As Ferry Ridership Grows, a New Vessel Commissioned

There’s more good news in the push to accelerate the expansion of regional ferry service. The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) this month approved $13 million in funding to construct a new 300-passenger ferry that is scheduled to hit the water in 2020. The Council, whose CEO Jim Wunderman serves on the WETA board, has been a leading proponent of expanding regional ferry service to help ease grinding traffic on Bay Area roads and highways and take some pressure off other congested transit systems. The new ferry will be the eighth vessel added to the fleet since 2017. WETA has added three 400-passenger boats since April 2017 with four more scheduled to start producing wakes in 2019. The water transit agency is also preparing to open new service to Richmond in January 2019 and to the San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood and Alameda’s Seaplane Lagoon in the next few years.

The expansion comes as WETA experiences record ridership growth. The agency’s 20-year strategic plan calls for operating at 16 terminals with 44 vessels by 2035. Today, they operate at nine terminals with 14 vessels. The Council helped lead the campaign for Regional Measure 3, which will provide significant funding to enable WETA to meet its expansion plans. To engage in the Council’s transportation policy work, please contact Chief Operating Officer John Grubb.

hover5_for mc

Trip Highlights Potential of Hovercraft on the Bay

The gate opened at the bow of the vessel, a black skirt draped around its hull. We boarded and took our seats. Within minutes, the boat rose quickly and effortlessly above the ground, the engines producing a dull thrumming sound and a cushion of air on which the boat gently hovered. The vessel glided smoothly away from the launch ramp, pivoted 180 degrees and accelerated. We were off.

You can be skeptical about hovercraft passenger service for the Bay Area, until you ride one. Then, you are changed. It was an awakening experience for a dozen water transit experts that the Bay Area Council and CEO Jim Wunderman led to Portsmouth, England, this week to do a deep-dive learning experience about hovercraft. The group rode a service that has 80-passenger crafts. They toured some recently retired hovercraft that carried 425 passengers and 60 cars across the English Channel. And, they heard from elected leaders and visited with hovercraft manufacturers.

Hovercraft offer a compelling opportunity to propel a dramatic expansion of regional water transit service that is already taking shape under the leadership of Council member Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA). Hovercraft could be a solution to accessing areas of the Bay where dredging costs, docks and environmental issues present obstacles to other vessels. The Council will be working with delegates from the trip, other officials in our region, with trip co-leader HOVR California, and many others to explore if next generation hovercraft have a place in the Bay Area. To engage in our water transit work, please contact Chief Operating Officer John Grubb.


Dismal Grades for California’s Bridges, Roads and Transit

Good thing California’s bridges, roads and transit aren’t trying to get into a top tier college. More likely, they’d be placed on academic probation. That was largely the conclusion this week of the America Society of Civil Engineers, which released its annual Surface Transportation Infrastructure Report Card at a press conference that included Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman. The report graded the condition of California’s roads a D, its bridges a C- and its transit systems a C-. California is home to 13 of the top 25 most traveled structurally deficient bridges in the nation, the ASCE found. The report said 44 percent of California’s roads are deficient, ranking it 49th in the country and costing the average motorist $843 in extra vehicle operating costs.

The report comes as voters prepare to cast their ballots on Proposition 6, a misguided initiative to repeal legislation the Council supported that invests $52 billion to fix the states roads, highways and bridges and improve transit. The Council opposes Prop. 6. Said Wunderman in an interview with KTVU following the press conference about the importance of investing in California’s aging transportation infrastructure: “If we don’t do this, we just keep increasing the backlog of work that needs to be done at tremendous cost to public safety and the quality of life for the people of our state.”


Can the Bay Area Hover Its Way Out of Traffic?

In the 1930s, a fleet of ferry boats carried about 55 million passengers a year in the Bay Area (adjusted for population, twice the ridership of BART). Yet today, only about 3 million passengers cross the water.

Many Bay Area cities and new developments have latent bayside infrastructure, and would be transformed by the arrival (or reestablishment) of robust water transit to their shore. Growing ferry service and the passage of Regional Measure 3 have accelerated excitement about water transit, but dredging costs, docks, environmental wake-restrictions and speed of ferries present significant, sometimes insurmountable challenges.

Passenger (or freight) hovercraft could offer a very interesting way around the challenges of expanding water transit to the entire Bay Area. They require far less infrastructure, travel faster, produce smaller wakes, burn less fuel and come in a wide range of sizes. The Bay Area Council wants to learn more about this option for our region and is leading a delegation to Portsmouth, England, in early October to meet with hovercraft manufacturers and operators, as well public officials and transportation experts, to learn how the vessels work.

Hovercraft could complement a major expansion of water transit service in the Bay Area that is being led by the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, on whose board Council CEO Jim Wunderman serves. WETA runs the SF Bay Ferry and is actively working on a variety of major projects, including new terminals in San Francisco, Richmond and Alameda along with the construction of new vessels and onshore operation and maintenance facilities. To learn more about the Council’s transportation policy work, please contact Chief Operating Officer John Grubb.