Point Lagoon Ferry Service in Limbo

Point Lagoon Ferry Service in Limbo

The new residential and commercial developer at Alameda Point has set aside $10 million toward the construction of a passenger ferry terminal at the Seaplane Lagoon. The Bay Area’s ferry agency — the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) — however, has made it clear there is currently no funding to operate a ferry there. 

WETA “will entirely exhaust its available operating subsidies on an annual basis, relying upon projected increases in ridership and fares to cover increasing operating costs for existing services,” stated a draft 10-year short-range transit plan that WETA issued in January for public comment. “WETA’s ability to increase service levels and meet future demand for ferry service will be restricted until new regional or local sources of operating subsidy are secured,” the draft stated.

WETA’s revenue picture is more limited than other regional transit agencies, such as BART. In WETA’s case, half of its operations funding comes from fares. Most of the other half— $15.3 million — comes from bridge tolls through Regional Measure 2, which was passed in 2005. A Harbor Bay parcel assessment funds 10 percent of the Harbor Bay service

WETA will be receiving about $1 million a year from the 2014 voter-approved Measure BB transportation sales tax. But it won’t help expand ferry service. Instead, WETA will keep those funds in reserve to cover inflationary operating expense increases and events that increase these expenses like the Super Bowl or a transit strike, according to Kevin Connolly, WETA’s manager of planning and development.

BART, on the other hand, receives more than 70 percent of its operating budget from fares. Revenue from close to 20,000 parking spaces at BART stations is the largest source of non-passenger fare revenue. It also receives funds from a regional sales tax and a regional property tax, both of which increase over time.   
WETA does not charge for parking on the roughly 600 parking spaces that it has direct responsibility for; a parking fee charged at the Vallejo Terminal goes to the city of Vallejo, rather than to WETA. In addition WETA receives no property tax revenue; sales tax revenue is limited to the token amount from Measure BB. 

“When WETA was formed in 2009, there wasn’t a good understanding of the cost of operations and expansion,” said Connolly. “The structural deficiency with the bridge toll funding is that it’s a set amount, and it does not escalate over time.” He pointed out that as the years roll on, the $15.3 million that comes from bridge tolls loses its value in terms of dollars due to inflation. 

“It gets to a point where fares are covering an increasing amount, or we’re increasing fares a lot,” he said. “The ferry service could be priced out of reach of most people and only be available to people with high incomes. The solution is to either fix the existing funding to allow an escalation with inflation so it maintains real value, or find another funding source.”

New ferry service out of Richmond, scheduled to begin in 2018, is one example of bringing in a new source of revenue. Last year, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority pledged $38 million toward the operating costs of the Richmond-to-San Francisco ferry service over the next 10 years. New boats to provide the service will be purchased with the help of $12 million in bridge toll funds awarded by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and $30 million in state grants.

Treasure Island ferry service, also scheduled to begin in 2018, will be funded by the project itself with its 8,000 residential units, hotels and commercial space. Part of the funding will come from a vehicle toll to exit that island.

Connolly suggests that emergency response funding could help underwrite WETA’s ferry operations. WETA gets emergency response funding for facilities, such as its maintenance facility at Alameda Point. But it receives no operations funding for maintaining the ferry system’s emergency readiness. 

“We’re tasked to do it,” said Connolly, “but there’s no funding attached to it. So, that could be a source.” About 20 percent of operations relates to emergency preparedness, according to Connolly.

Newly available California Cap and Trade funds from greenhouse gas emissions are a potential source of funding that WETA is looking into.

The city and the current mixed-use developer are studying the costs to build the proposed Seaplane Lagoon passenger ferry terminal. “The operating expense will be about the same as Harbor Bay ferry service, a little more than $3 million a year,” said Connolly. “Plus, there is the cost of a new vessel.”

WETA’s draft 10-year plan provides an overview of service and performance, along with projections of capital, operating expenses and revenues for the next decade. Preparation of the plan is a requirement of the Federal Transit Administration and is updated every two years. WETA is seeking public comments by Friday, Feb. 19 at san franciscobayferry.com/weta/srtp. 

Jennifer Ott, chief operating officer for Alameda Point, said that the city is working on an agreement with WETA regarding the proposed Seaplane Lagoon ferry, and she could not disclose details. Ott said that she is hoping to bring the draft agreement to the city council in mid-March for approval.