Ferry Facility Dedicated
Last Thursday, the Water Emergency Transportation Administration (WETA) broke ground at Alameda Point for its $49.5 million Ron Cowan Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility.
Many associate Cowan’s name with developing Bay Farm Island. However he also played a larger-than-life role in forming water-emergency response on San Francisco Bay as we know it today. WETA honored Cowan by naming the Alameda Point facility in his honor. Cowan’s role in influencing how the Bay Area uses its waterways to respond to emergencies had its roots in providing ferry service for the Harbor Bay Business Park, but it gelled on a day that many remember so well.
Cowan had an uncommon commute with a view that few of us enjoy. He flew his helicopter from Marin County to his Alameda office. On the way to and from work, he observed how crowded the freeways were and how free the waterways were. He was returning to his Alameda office in his helicopter after a meeting with UC Davis on Oct. 17, 1989, when the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck.
“I was about to enter the airspace that the Navy controlled over its air station in Alameda,” Cowan said. He had just radioed the Navy for permission to do so. Just then he saw the Bay Bridge collapse. Cowan didn’t know it yet, but the Loma Prieta Earthquake had just struck. At the Navy’s request, he hovered over the bridge and reported what he was seeing. That experience opened his eyes to the need for emergency transportation, not along the highways, but along the waterways.
In that eye-opening moment, Cowan realized that the San Francisco Bay itself, not the freeways that surrounded it, were key to this emergency transportation. The Loma Prieta Earthquake had severed the Bay Bridge, the concrete artery that connected San Francisco with the East Bay. However, the waterways — the artery that so many had depended on before the November 12, 1936, opening of bridge — remained intact.
Cowan’s vision of introducing ferry service to the East Bay was already six years old as he watched in horror as cars tumbled around the Bay Bridge like so many toys. As part of his efforts to bring ferry service to Harbor Bay, he introduced the Bay Area to a Hovercraft. He used the craft from 1983 to 1986 to transport people around San Francisco Bay and to demonstrate the use of a Surface Effect Ship or “SES.” “We staffed the craft with a group of hostesses we warmly called ‘The Hoverettes,’” Cowan said.
The 1989 earthquake gave Cowan a vision, now he had to sell it. He had to convince the proper authorities that the next time an emergency as devastating as the Loma Prieta earthquake arose, we need not concern ourselves with freeways and highways because we had the waterways. Cowan opened another chapter in his life that October day.
“In 1983, I viewed the ferry service as a way to connect Harbor Bay to San Francisco,” he said. “Now I became a crusader to convince people to use the ferries as a way to respond to natural emergencies such as earthquakes.” He turned to city councils and the state government. He convinced Bill Lockyer, the president of the California Senate, to see the San Francisco Bay as a pathway. The powerful in Sacramento saw merit in Cowan’s idea and introduced him to Sunne McPeak at the Bay Area Council.
Cowan and McPeak turned to others. One played a special role in seeing his dream fulfilled, Willie Brown. “Willie helped see the dream through,” Cowan said. “He helped me work with Sunne.” Don Perata also helped, writing the legislation that created the Water Transportation Authority.
“Sunne formed a 52-member committee and appointed me as the chairman,” Cowan said. The Water Transit Authority was born, but Cowan wasn’t done. A key word was missing: emergency. He turned again to the authorities in Sacramento.
Cowan credits Perata with getting things done. “Don had helped write the legislation that earlier created the Water Transportation Authority, now he played a key role in doing the same for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority,” Cowan said. With Perata’s assistance Cowan saw that all-important word, emergency, added to the authority’s title — his dream became reality.
Each and every year, WETA carries more than 2 million passengers to and from Alameda, Oakland, San Francisco, South San Francisco and Vallejo on twelve high-speed passenger-only ferries. In addition, thanks to Ron’s insistence and persistence, Bay Area commuters can rest assured that WETA has an emergency plan in place. WETA thanked Cowan last Thursday for a job well down.