Bay Area Council Blog


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.

Water flash

Optimism, Anxiety over Water Plan and Bay Restoration

The Bay Area Council Water Committee received mixed news as state regulators continued their plan to reclaim water from the Bay Area and other regions for the environment. On the one hand, the State Water Board has approved a controversial plan to reclaim water from the Bay Area and other regions for the environment. The decision came over the strong objections from the Bay Area Council that such a move could provoke a wave of building moratoria across the region. However, a last-minute voluntary agreement between the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and its partners and the state Natural Resources Agency could provide more targeted benefits to ecosystems without threatening the region’s water supply.

The Water Committee, meeting at Council member Venable, LLC, also discussed the broader 2019 water policy landscape with UC Berkeley’s Ethan Elkind, and the status of Bay restoration projects with San Mateo County Supervisor David Pine, who also chairs the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority. To engage with the Bay Area Council’s Water Committee, please contact Vice President, Public Policy Adrian Covert.

housing cmte

Resounding Council YES to Denser Housing near Transit

The Bay Area Council Housing Committee this week endorsed Sen. Scott Wiener’s revised legislation aimed at increasing housing density near public transportation. Under SB 50, housing density limits would be raised near transit, job centers and high-quality public schools. The Committee also heard from TMG Partners CEO (and former Council Chair) Michael Covarrubias about a bold regional plan to address the region’s housing crisis. Covarrubias is a Co-Chair of Committee to House the Bay Area, or CASA, which the Metropolitan Transportation Commission convened to come up with solutions. The 10-point, 15-year “emergency policy package” CASA unveiled on Wednesday (Dec. 12) included a range of proposals to speed up new housing approvals, encourage denser housing near transit, expand rental and housing assistance programs, promote accessory dwelling units and impose emergency rent caps, among others. The plan calls for creating 35,000 housing units a year, well above current levels. Many of the proposals would need legislative action to take effect. The Committee took no action on the CASA plan and the Council is continuing its review. The Committee also received a presentation by Nomaad, an Italian company that manufactures an innovative new housing type that uses high-rise technology to create extremely light stackable all-inclusive micro units. The Committee also endorsed three projects that would add 1,187 new units of much needed housing in Berkeley, Mountain View and Lafayette. To engage in the Council’s housing policy work, please contact Senior Vice President Matt Regan.


State Approves Water Cuts; SF Eyes Plan Warily

State regulators approved a controversial water plan late Wednesday (Dec. 12) that the Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimated could gut regional water supplies and provoke widespread building moratoria across the San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda counties. Yet just before the plan was adopted, Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom unveiled a voluntary agreement between the State Natural Resources Agency and water users that would generate $1.7 billion to secure 700,000 acre-feet of new environmental flows each year for the San Joaquin River. Under the agreement, the Bay Area would give up 50,000 acre-feet of water each year to the environment and invest millions of dollars in habitat restoration along the Tuolumne River, which feeds the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and is a tributary to the larger San Joaquin River. San Francisco officials were reviewing the agreement but also indicated they were exploring a possible legal challenge. The Council’s Water Committee will discuss the implication of the agreement at its next meeting on December 17. To attend, or to engage with the Council’s Water Committee, please contact Public Policy Vice President Adrian Covert.

text tax

Council Gives Big Thumbs Down to Texting Tax

A proposal by the California Public Utilities Commission to tax text messaging got a strong thumbs down this week from the Bay Area Council and other groups. It was unclear exactly how the tax or levy would be charged, but the CPUC plan also called for making it retroactive to five years ago. The CPUC was scheduled to consider the texting tax this week (Dec. 12) but for unknown reasons rescheduled the matter to Jan. 10. An oped by Council CEO Jim Wunderman that ran in the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday said “the text tax would raise wireless phone bills for tens of millions of Californians young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural” and questioned the need for a new tax. The funding would presumably support a CPUC program to provide access to telecommunications services for lower-income and disadvantaged residents, except that the program already has $1 billion in it and has seen its spending almost double in the past four years. The new tax may also run afoul of federal regulations approved this week that define texting as an information service. That would remove texting from the CPUC’s authority. An unscientific poll of Twitter users that received 417 votes found 95 percent oppose taxing texting. The Council continues to examine this misguided proposal ahead of the January meeting. To learn more, please contact Public Policy Vice President Adrian Covert.

advanced energy

Meeting California’s Advanced Energy Workforce Needs

The Bay Area Council’s Workforce of the Future Committee partnered with California Community Colleges to host an Advanced Energy Industry Roundtable on Monday, December 10. The convening brought together educators and employers in the advanced energy sector to address growing workforce demand in the industry. California’s cap-and-trade policy has identified workforce as a key component of the state’s expanding advanced energy industry, where an additional 15,000 highly skilled workers are needed every year. Employers emphasized a need for community colleges to focus on tech-related occupations, as the ‘internet of things’ provides a greater need for cybersecurity, energy storage, and data management. Regional community college programs are working to address these industry needs throughout their energy, construction, and utilities programs in the Bay Area. To engage in the Council’s Workforce of the Future initiative, please contact Senior Vice President Linda Bidrossian.

north san joaquin

Expanding Economic Opportunity in the Megaregion

The economic and social progress of the North San Joaquin Valley (NSJV) was discussed recently at the University of the Pacific’s Center for Business and Policy Research (CBPR) fifth annual the State of the North San Joaquin Valley Conference in Stockton. In addition to the NSJV Index, an annual review of the socio-economic well-being of the region, the conference focus was on transforming skills ecosystems.  Linda Bidrossian, senior vice president of the Bay Area Council and head of the Council’s Workforce of the Future policy initiative, participated in the expert panel on workforce skills.

“The index highlights the emerging and developing economic issues, as well as the economic and demographic outlooks for a three-county region that needs more recognition as a unique and important place in California,” said Jeffrey Michael, CBPR’s executive director. “The index and the conference are tools for building regional identity and for sparking collaboration on economic development to enhance the quality of life in the region and across northern California.”

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs’ delivered a keynote address discussing the need to transform employment opportunities in Stockton and the city’s Workforce Development Action Plan.

“It is important that we focus and prepare for the changing trends in our economic future,” Tubbs said. “We must situate Stockton and our greater region to build upon local advantages such as our port, our proximity to the Bay Area and our easy access to major transportation routes, all while providing our community with tools needed to fulfill the high-skilled jobs of tomorrow.”

“This three-county region faces a multitude of challenges as well as opportunities to transform its skills ecosystem and make sure there are more skilled workers,” said Thomas Pogue, CBPR’s associated director, who moderated the expert panel. That, in addition to the Bay Area Council’s Bidrossian, included Robert Tibbs, founder and CEO of ConSol-USA; and Ann Rogan, FUSE executive fellow in the mayor’s office.

JP Morgan Chase and Co., Pacific Gas and Electric and San Joaquin Council of Governments co-sponsored the event.


Member Spotlight: Alston & Bird, Celebrating 10 Years in CA

2018 marks a year of celebration for Alston & Bird, a leading national law firm that provides a full range of services to domestic and international clients conducting business around the world. This year, the firm celebrated its 125th anniversary as well as its 10th anniversary in California. The firm’s Los Angeles and Silicon Valley offices opened in 2008 and just last year expanded into San Francisco with the addition of a team providing legal counsel in a number of industries, including financial services, insurance, banking, technology, health care, pharmaceuticals, food products, manufacturing, oil and gas, marketing, retail, securities, and telecommunications.

Alston & Bird has been ranked on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 19 consecutive years, an unprecedented accomplishment among law firms in the United States. The recognition speaks to the culture of the firm and the environment in which it practices law and provides service to clients. The firm has also been consistently recognized in the BTI Client Service A-Team Report. This recognition is reserved for the top-performing firms in the industry that provide superior client service.

Alston & Bird’s San Francisco team looks forward to continuing to build and enhance relationships with San Francisco’s business and civic communities and contribute to the city’s rich history as an unparalleled hub of innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship.

To learn more about Alston & Bird, please visit


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.”


Wiener Returns with New Housing-Transit Bill

State Sen. Scott Wiener is stepping up again to address California’s massive housing crisis, this week introducing legislation that would require higher-density housing near transit-rich areas. The bill, SB 50, is similar to legislation Wiener introduced last year that brought a firestorm of opposition from cities and others concerned it went too far in dictating local zoning and land use decisions. The Bay Area Council served on a diverse stakeholder group to provide input on the new legislation, which includes a variety of provisions that address concerns related to local control, gentrification and displacement. And, we remain closely engaged with YIMBY (yes in my backyard) groups that are sponsoring the bill.

SB 50, the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity and Stability Act (HOMES), is consistent with the Council’s work to increase housing near rail, bus and other high-volume transit systems. A recent California Air Resources Board report found that increasing commute distances—and the tailpipe emissions they produce—caused by a lack of housing threaten the state’s ability to reach its aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals. The findings were similar to a 2015 report—Another Inconvenient Truth—by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. To engage in the Council’s housing policy work, please contact Senior Vice President Matt Regan.