A new drive to commute by boat

Gridlock and a dash of nostalgia cause San Francisco to push for more

This city is most famous for a golden-hued bridge that soars over its surrounding bay.

But grasping San Francisco's essence really requires a journey to water's edge. More precisely, riding a ferryboat, which the city's late beloved newspaper columnist Herb Caen once described as a good way to bring one "close to the foaming heart of the matter."

Pressed by modern gridlock and beckoned by the whiff of nostalgia, San Francisco is laying plans for a solution to congested roads and freeways that will take it back to its watery roots.

Wending its way through the California state legislature and already blessed by the region's political heavyweights - former governor and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown - is a plan for the most extensive ferryboat system in the world.

Sitting in traffic on the backed-up bridges that span the San Francisco Bay seems to have produced one of the largest collective "duhs" in transportation history. There below, it was realized, was a vast, underutilized waterway that in the early 1900s was the platform for an enormous ferryboat transit system.

Ferryboat nostalgia

While nearly killed by the automobile, that system was such a powerful shaper of the city that one of San Francisco's dominant landmarks remains known as, simply, the Ferry Building. In its heyday, the main boulevard leading to that waterfront tower darkened each evening around 5 p.m. as throngs of pedestrians, buses, and taxis funneled workers onto boats for a leisurely ride to communities across the water.

Today, "we lose 100,000 hours each day sitting in traffic," fumes Russell Hancock of the Bay Area Council, the regional agency pushing the ferryboat plan. "It's never been worse."

Grasping the resurgent appeal of a gentler and more collegial era, local maritime historian Nancy Olmsted says of the ferryboats: "People feel they've lost some of the good things and they want them back."

Indeed, it's become obvious to most everyone, says Mr. Hancock, that the explosive growth of the San Francisco Bay region is overwhelming the existing transit infrastructure. And with no plans for any new freeways, the water provides an obvious opportunity.

With Oakland being revitalizedSan Francisco undergoing a building boom, and Silicon Valley exploding with jobs and capital, this is a time for dramatic steps. And the scale of what is being proposed is breathtaking.

The half-dozen routes already operating around the bay would grow to 30. Nearly as many new terminals would be added, dotting the interior of the bay as well as one in Half Moon Bay, outside the Golden Gate Bridge and down the coast. And the number of passengers moved by water today, around 3.5 million per year, would grow 10-fold.

Full steam ahead

If all those things happen, the Bay Area's ferryboat system would race ahead of Seattle's, now the largest system in the United States, and even surpass world-class water transportation hubs like Sydney and Hong Kong.

An East Bay legislator will introduce legislation soon to create a Bay Area Water Transit Authority, a move already supported by the transportation committee chairmen in both legislative houses, the president of the state Senate, who happens to be from San Francisco, and the state's newly elected attorney general, also from the Bay Area.

The sticky part is the funding, which is estimated to cost about $2 billion to get the expanded system up and running. Most of the money is expected to come from higher bridge tolls.

There have been fledgling attempts through the years to increase the area's ferryboat system, but there were often other transportation priorities, like the BART rapid transit system in the 1970s, or simply a lack of political cohesion on the subject.

Not so now

Most analysts expect getting the funds will involve some massive horse-trading because of transit agency rivalries and demands for compensation from legislators from other regions of the state. Still, there is optimism this effort will succeed.

Indeed, what Hancock fears most is not failure but a scaled-down plan that will not be as bold as the blueprint the council has outlined. Aside from the rare breadth of political support the plan enjoys, it is also riding a wave of public dissatisfaction with transportation.

While schools and crime may top the list of public concerns in many American communities, across this region transportation is issue No. 1, according to polls.

The clincher for anyone in doubt is to simply try the ferryboat, says historian Olmsted. "People are astonished at how much fun it is compared to the solitary torture of the freeway."

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