Smoke (and Mirrors) on the Water 

If expanding our ferry system as a disaster backup is a good idea, then why do Bay Area earthquake experts think the proposal stinks?

The Bay Area has a dysfunctional relationship with ferryboats. While the vast majority of local commuters never actually ride the ones already in service on San Francisco Bay, residents repeatedly tell pollsters they want more of them.

The latest example arrived two weeks ago with poll results claiming 68 percent of Bay Area residents favor expanding the region's ferry system so it will link up the entire bay. Commissioned by the Bay Area Council, a pro-ferry business group, the poll also had a whopping 91 percent of residents saying it's "important" to have a regional ferry system in case the next major earthquake knocks out BART and the bridges.

Predictably, the results were heralded on local radio and television news and in Bay Area newspapers. Ferries were portrayed as saviors in a major disaster; the San Francisco Chronicle even headlined its story "Ferry Godmother."

But upon closer analysis, the poll was deeply flawed. Moreover, several leading Bay Area earthquake experts agree that there are far more important seismic issues to be addressed. A greatly expanded ferry system is an unnecessary, costly expenditure, they said, because taxpayers already have shelled out billions to retrofit BART and build a new quake-safe Bay Bridge. "The Bay Bridge and the BART tube, once they're retrofitted, they should be fine," said William Lettis, a member of the US Geological Survey Working Group and one of the most respected earthquake experts nationwide. "An additional backup system like ferries is just overkill."

What's more, nobody uses the ferries. Study after study has shown that a lack of riders makes them the Bay Area's least efficient form of transportation. On a per-rider basis, ferries also suck up the most public dollars. Just 9,000 daily commuters ride them to San Francisco, compared with the 150,000 who speed through the Transbay Tube on BART. Heavy BART use means that the system needs only a 37 percent public subsidy to cover operational costs -- taxpayers, that is, cover 37 cents of every dollar BART spends -- while fares cover the rest. But lightly used ferry lines often require a 70 percent public subsidy to stay afloat.

It's never made much economic sense to launch a major ferry system in the Bay Area. But that hasn't stopped the Bay Area Council, which has repeatedly employed the "build-it-and-they-will-come" argument. If we create a massive new ferry system, in other words, the aqua-commuters will flock.

The ferry pushers have a powerful ally: state Senate President Don Perata. In 1999, the Oakland Democrat teamed up with the Bay Area Council and wrote legislation that created the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority, which has been pushing for a regional ferry service ever since. To help pay for it, Perata wrote a bill in 2003 that resulted in a regional ballot measure that asked voters to raise Bay Area bridge tolls from $2 to $3.

The toll hike promised to pay for a host of transportation projects, but critics decried the amount earmarked for ferries. Environmentalists also complained that diesel-powered ferries are huge polluters. Voters nonetheless approved Regional Measure 2 in March 2004, handing ferries a cash infusion of up to $680 million over the next thirty years for capital expenses and operational costs. By contrast, the measure shortchanged existing transportation systems such as BART, which stands to receive $392 million in total.

During the campaign, Perata came under fire for his close relationship with Alameda developer Ron Cowan (see "Road to Nowhere," feature, 3/1), who owns a ferry service to San Francisco from the business park he built on Bay Farm Island. Cowan has been one of Perata's largest campaign contributors in recent years, and Regional Measure 2 kept his little-used Harbor Bay ferry from going under.

While Measure 2 will sustain the existing ferry system and pay for new boats and new service from Berkeley, Richmond, and South San Francisco, it won't finance the massive system envisioned by the Bay Area Council and the Water Transit Authority. During the past few years, the enthusiasm of the ferry proponents has been dampened by state budget woes. Their hope was rekindled in January, however, when Governor Schwarzenegger announced a stunning plan to spend $222 billion on the state's infrastructure over the next decade.

Hoping to get in on an unprecedented spending spree, and knowing full well the region's paradoxical ferry infatuation, the Bay Area Council immediately commissioned a poll. The business group also was keenly aware that Hurricane Katrina has heightened public fears of a major catastrophe. So its pollster asked residents: "In a disaster, such as an earthquake or large-scale terrorist attack, when freeways, BART, and bridges might be out of service, how important would it be to have a regional ferry system in place to help transport emergency supplies, goods, and people -- extremely important, somewhat important, or not too important?"

Not surprisingly, 65 percent of respondents said "extremely important," and another 26 percent said "somewhat important." In response to a follow-up question that again highlighted the role ferries could play in a disaster, 73 percent said it should be an "important" or "top" priority to spend new transportation dollars on ferries.

Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, acknowledged in an interview that the poll contained significant omissions. For example, it never asked respondents whether they were aware taxpayers already are spending at least $6.3 billion on a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, and are about to shell out $1.3 billion to retrofit BART, including the Transbay Tube. Nor did the pollster ask whether respondents have ever personally commuted by ferry, or if they knew that all other major bridges in the region have been retrofitted already and are expected to perform well in a quake. Asked why those questions weren't posed, Wunderman responded: "That's a good question."

Just before the poll came out, Don Perata wrote a letter urging the Bay Area Council to form a task force to determine whether a regional ferry plan would make sense as part of the governor's infrastructure proposal. Wunderman did so, appointing Ron Cowan as its cochair.

One year ago, the Express published a comprehensive, two-week package on the dangers the East Bay faces in the next big quake. Reporters conducted more than three dozen interviews with earthquake and engineering experts and scoured more than one thousand pages of earthquake preparation plans by public agencies. Never once did anyone raise the idea of expanding the ferry system as a bridge-and-BART backup plan.

Reinterviewed for this story, a common response from some of those same experts was "Huh?"

"It's going to take a lot of ferries to carry all the people who take BART or the bridge," said Gregory Fenves, chair of UC Berkeley's civil engineering department. "You'd have to string the ferries across the bay, and even that wouldn't probably be enough."

Mary Comerio, a UC Berkeley architecture professor who helped spearhead the campus' acclaimed earthquake retrofit program, is an expert in the dangers of soft-story apartment buildings, which are plentiful in the East Bay and pose one of the most significant life-threatening risks during a quake. "Let's put it this way: ferries are not high on the priority list," she said.

Topping the list of seismic priorities for regional quake experts are the aforementioned apartment buildings, the fragile Delta levees that protect the water supply for 22 million Californians and much of the state's agriculture, seismically unsafe hospital and school buildings, old concrete and brick office buildings, and incompatible fire department radio systems.

There's at least one more reason a large ferry system makes little sense, experts say: It probably won't be accessible after the quake strikes. That's because most of the soft mud soils around the bay are expected to liquefy, probably leaving waterfront roads broken and impassable for weeks, if not months. "There definitely will be issues getting to the main ferry building in downtown San Francisco," said Lettis, a liquefaction expert. "That's a consideration people often overlook. For example, right now we're spending large sums of money retrofitting the runways at San Francisco and Oakland airports to make sure they'll be available after an earthquake. But it's the access roads we should be worried about."

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