Alameda Ferry Center Is Full Steam Ahead

Alameda Point just became home to the Bay Area’s emergency operations center, and officials hope to open the new ferry terminal at Seaplane Lagoon in early 2020.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

If you join the Bay Trail at the Encinal boat ramp and follow the popular path west toward the USS Hornet, you’ll notice that the Water Emergency Transit Authority, or WETA, has finished building its new four-story central operations and maintenance facility at the corner of West Hornet Avenue and Ferry Point Street. The ribbon-cutting for the facility isn’t scheduled until mid-December, but in late October, crews were already hard at work on the regional agency’s fleet of ferries, which now berth at the 12-slip dock that’s connected to WETA’s new Alameda facility.

WETA spokesperson Thomas Hall said crews show up at Alameda Point in the morning to prep and fuel the ferries. “And some come back for a midday break, after the commute,” he said, noting that the warehouse at the new facility is stocked with tiny parts. “It’s good to have spares, and this is a garage guy’s dream.”

Debbie Potter, the city of Alameda’s base reuse and redevelopment director, said Alameda is “thrilled” with the outcome of the project, which was the first development at Alameda Point, after the Navy left in 1997. “This was the first new construction out at the base,” Potter said.

The project’s completion also represents a major regional shift. In 1999, the state Legislature created a water transit authority to plan a new and expanded ferry service in the region, a decade after the Loma Prieta earthquake. That decision ultimately resulted two decades later in the authority’s emergency operational center being built in Alameda. The facility cost an estimated $50 million to build. “It feels good to know that in the event of an emergency, people would feel more connected, and ferries would be a big help in the first 72 hours following an emergency,” Potter said.

As Hall explained, should an earthquake strike, the California Office of Emergency Services would control the response, while WETA would serve as the communications hub. “We would become the central contact for the entire fleet,” Hall said, referring to all vessels, including the floating hospital that the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, maintains at the point.

Yet despite WETA’s decision to relocate its entire fleet to Alameda Point, you still can’t catch a ferry from the new facility. Hall noted that WETA plans to build a new terminal at Seaplane Lagoon, which is a stone’s throw from away, by 2020. For years, the fate of the lagoon terminal hung in the balance, as the city struggled to find an acceptable redeveloper for the base plan. Some of that uncertainty ended in March 2018, when the council amended its agreement with Alameda Point Partners, clearing the path for the first phase of a 68-acre “gateway” project at the point, which includes a new terminal. And recently WETA committed $2 million to help get funding for the Seaplane Lagoon terminal over the finish line.

Hall noted that Alameda desperately needs a new ferry terminal. WETA’s Alameda ridership, “is off the charts and not just on weekdays,” he said. “It will be a reimagining and expansion of our service to Oakland and Alameda.”

From the city’s perspective, early 2020 is a hard deadline. “We have to hit that February 2020 target,” Potter said, noting the city has committed $2 million and Alameda Point Partners has committed $10 million to the terminal.

As for WETA, building a third terminal in Alameda is part of a regional expansion plan it hopes to realize by 2035 that involves increasing its fleet almost fourfold, more than doubling its ferry terminals, increasing peak capacity by 740 percent, and serving five times the current number of daily riders.

Such expansion doesn’t come cheap. In 2016, WETA estimated its Bay Area ferry service expansion would require approximately $850 million in new capital funds over the next 20 years and $50 million in new annual operating subsidies. So far, the lion’s share of funding for WETA’s local and regional expansion has come from a series of bridge toll measures — a revenue stream that’s guaranteed to continue, thanks to the June 2018 passage of Regional Measure C, which will help provides seed money for capital expansion and annual operating support.

But talk of expanding ferry service raises questions about how additional riders would travel to their terminal of choice: Parking is a headache at the Harbor Bay terminal on Bay Farm island, and a challenge at the Main Street terminal, and Potter said building parking structures at ferry terminals is not part of the city’s vision. 

She noted, however, that Bob Leach, developer of a hotel project next to the Harbor Bay ferry terminal, has agreed to make parking available to ferry riders by day, and that hotels are also a permitted use at Alameda Point.

In 2015, when the city council approved WETA’s new facility, the agency made two promises: the project would create decent-paying jobs, and proponents would seek an acceptable alternative for harbor seals that liked to rest on a dilapidated dock that had to be demolished to make way for WETA’s new facility. Fast forward three years, and both promises appear to have been met: the facility has created 50 to 100 jobs, so far, including engineers and mechanics, administrative and dispatchers, and vessel crew and vendors, depending on the season, Hall said. “These are permanent jobs not including construction crews during the building phase,” he said. And Potter noted the jobs are “unionized, good paying positions, with a couple of management spots.”

As for the seals, everyone agrees these doe-eyed marine mammals have taken swimmingly well to the new $100,000 float that WETA installed. “We’re thrilled the seals are thriving,” Hall said. Potter observed that she doesn’t know if the city has talked in any official way about replacing or expanding the float. “But everyone has noted that it’s been overwhelmingly successful,” she said.

Alameda environmentalist Richard Bangert said he spotted 70 seals on the float and another 20-30 on Breakwater Island, last winter. “So, it was 99 seals at Alameda Point,” he said, noting that the only thing that seems to bother them are kayaks and other small craft that get too close.

As for concerns that the Seaplane Lagoon terminal project could be detrimental to brown pelicans that roost in large numbers (more than 8,000 this winter) on the Alameda Wildlife Reserve Breakwater Island, which protects the area from wave action, Potter said protections for pelicans and seals are built into Alameda Point’s environmental impact report. Bangert, who photographs wildlife from a small boat, said, “Pelicans will sometimes be spooked, but ferries have no reason to hug the breakwater” where the terminal is planned.

“The ones that are skittish are the great blue herons,” Bangert said. “They don’t trust anybody.”

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