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Ridership on Bay Area ferries remains far below its pre-pandemic levels, but that hasn’t put a crimp in plans to expand ferry service greatly in the coming years.

Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council. (Photo courtesy of Bay Area Council)

Jim Wunderman, chair of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), recently laid out a vision that includes more ferry runs, new ports and the addition of hovercraft to serve communities in the South Bay, where the water is too shallow for traditional ferry boats.

“I believe most passengers who use ferries find their transit experience extremely pleasant and typically very reliable,” Wunderman said. “I suspect there is no more enjoyable way of traveling … being able to get a snack or drink while commuting (and) being in touch with San Francisco Bay.”

Wunderman’s comments came during an hour-long question and answer session with staff and readers of LocalNewsMatters.org.

In the pandemic’s early days, Wunderman said, WETA dramatically cut its service, and passenger traffic fell by 90 percent. But ridership began rising in the spring, a trend that continued during the summer after WETA introduced higher levels of service and lowered its fares.

Ridership shows strength

Today, passenger traffic remains relatively low during traditional commute hours, Wunderman said, as large numbers of employees continue to work from home. But off-peak and weekend ridership has been strong.

“Overall, our ridership since July is about 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels, well above what we modeled in our budget,” he said.

Earlier this year, the ferry agency inaugurated a new ferry terminal at Seaplane Lagoon, on the site of Alameda’s former Naval Air Station. Traffic there, about 400 passengers per day, is “solid,” Wunderman said, though only 50 percent of pre-pandemic expectations.

Still, in the not-too-distant future, WETA plans to add new ferry terminals in Mission Bay, Redwood City and Treasure Island. The Mission Bay project — a terminal across from the Golden State Warriors’ new Chase Center — has been stalled by litigation over Regional Measure 3, a funding measure approved by voters in 2018.

“I believe most passengers who use ferries find their transit experience extremely pleasant and typically very reliable. I suspect there is no more enjoyable way of traveling…”

If a court ruling allows Regional Measure 3 to move forward, it would contribute $35 million in annual operating revenue, but in the meantime Wunderman said WETA and the Port of San Francisco are “working furiously”  to find other government funds for the project.

Wunderman said WETA is developing a business plan with Redwood City and hopes to begin ferry service there in 2024, while a ferry dock on Treasure Island is largely completed, with shuttle service to downtown San Francisco set to start this coming spring.

Further out, WETA is talking with Berkeley officials about restoring the Berkeley Pier for ferry service. “I believe the chances of it happening are quite good,” Wunderman said. And the ferry agency is in discussions with South Bay communities about possible hovercraft service, as well as with several cities along the Carquinez Strait, including Hercules, Martinez and Antioch.

“We should be servicing those communities, providing a water transit alternative to long, arduous vehicle commutes,” Wunderman said. Along with his role at WETA, Wunderman is the long-time president of the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy and public policy group with more than 325 member companies.

Shipping out

Wunderman confirmed the Council has left its previous offices in downtown San Francisco and by year end hopes to have moved into a refurbished historic ferry boat, the 95-year-old MS Klamath, which will be berthed at Pier 9, adjacent to WETA’s offices.

Among other topics addressed by Wunderman in the wide-ranging Q&A session:

Return to work: “Our polling of workers and employers seems to show that what once was a four-to-five-day week in the office will be more like three. This will affect downtown business, traffic, etc. We don’t know exactly how (but) certainly it’s a very big concern for our cities.”

President Biden’s vaccine mandate: “We haven’t had a chance to discuss the President’s mandate at the Bay Area Council (but) in my opinion a vaccine mandate for workers coming together makes sense.”

Oakland A’s proposed stadium at Howard Street Terminal: “This can be a HUGE win for Oakland. Many people depend on income from full- and part-time jobs directly associated with the team and baseball park operations. Plus we’d very much like to keep an iconic major league sports franchise in our region. “