San Mateo County transportation officials are expressing frustration by low South San Francisco ferry ridership and a perceived lack of effort in growing those numbers, but ferry officials say the numbers are just fine and marketing is a key part of their plans.
Fares could have to rise from their current cost of $7 for ferry riders if the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, or WETA, which runs the weekday commuter ferry service, doesn’t pick up more customers. San Mateo County Transportation Authority Board members, like South San Francisco Mayor Karyl Matsumoto, are expressing dismay over a lack of marketing plan by WETA. The ferry service has a deadline of 2015 for raising its farebox recovery, the portion of ferry costs that are covered by rider fares, and it isn’t close to meeting the requirement. WETA officials said they plan to ask for a deadline extension.
Right now, the majority of the funding is coming from bridge toll money that will go away in 2015. The Transportation Authority board is also concerned WETA isn’t meeting regularly or been responsive to its feedback. Matsumoto has a specific interest because the ferry service runs out of South City. Other Transportation Authority Board members, like Redwood City Vice Mayor Rosanne Foust, have expressed an interest in a public ferry service in Redwood City. The Transportation Authority provides funding through Measure A, a half-cent sales tax in San Mateo County for transportation projects.
WETA needs to meet a farebox recovery requirement of 40 percent by June 30, 2015, and the board decided to send a letter stating its disappointment with WETA staff’s treatment of its discussions and requests to up the marketing plan. The current operating budget is about $2.1 million for contracted operator costs, $708,600 in fuel costs and $737,000 in other costs.
“We have the major players who have access to ferry riders, but with all the efforts we bring forth to WETA and they don’t do anything,” Matsumoto said. “We talked about leafleting, fliers, suggested giving out passes for raffle prizes. Every time, it’s like butting our heads against a wall. ... It would be a great blow to our community if this doesn’t succeed.”
The end of 2013 numbers showed a 17 percent farebox recovery, but this number is up to a little more than 20 percent currently, said Kevin Connolly, WETA’s manager of planning and development. WETA’s total revenue is $3.57 million, while its fare revenue is $294,800. About $3 million of this revenue is from Regional Measure 2 bridge toll funds. Connolly thinks the 40 percent target is unrealistic, but does say that ridership is up 51 percent from a little more than a year ago.
“We’re outpacing the rest of the system,” he said. “It’s 35 percent systemwide. I think we will make our ridership expectations. The first year we were at 9 [percent], the second year over 20 [percent]. We would need to keep growing considerably. Forty percent is not a reasonable goal — not within three years.”
The ferry, connecting Oakland and Alameda with the Oyster Point Ferry Terminal in South City, first opened in 2012. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, provided $29 million in Regional Measure 2 bridge toll funds to finance WETA’s new ferries. This includes $12 million to help cover the cost of two vessels for the new ferry service, plus $17 million for two other ferries that will provide spare vehicle capacity for various ferry routes. WETA used $7 million from toll funds that were approved by voters in 2004 to help pay for environmental studies, design work on the Oyster Point terminal in San Francisco, Clipper fare-payment equipment and berthing facilities at Pier 9 in San Francisco. MTC also is using toll funds to provide most of the ferry service’s operations subsidy. The average daily ridership for this year is 327 people.
Connolly notes that the rules the MTC set up allow for a project to take extra time to reach their goals, especially if it’s demonstrated extra growth. WETA has made a request of MTC to allow the 40 percent farebox quota to be a systemwide one rather than just for the East Bay-South City ferry service.
“We think 40 percent is achievable, but not within three years,” he said. “My feeling is MTC realizes the timetable isn’t realistic.”
Although the MTC hasn’t received a formal request from WETA, there is an MTC meeting scheduled in October to talk about funding from toll money, said Brenda Kahn, senior public information officer for MTC.
“The staff knows it’s a new service and it’s going to take a while to ramp up,” Kahn said. “The commission does have the discretion to make changes of the (funding) requirements. There’s an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with WETA in October.”
Not enough marketing?
Still, Matsumoto said the marketing efforts aren’t enough. She noted that of the surveys WETA had passengers take, 44 percent of riders heard about the ferry through work or through word of mouth. In the last year, Connolly said WETA has done surveys of the general population and actual riders, eight events with employers, events at the ferry terminal itself and placed 30,000 free inserts into the San Francisco Chronicle, radio spots, ads and blog posts in local employer newsletters.
“Our feeling is we’re marketing the service very heavily,” he said. “The impression that comes from the TA staff is there’s no marketing happening.”
Part of this misconception could be that the market for this service is not San Mateo County residents, but Alameda County residents, so the Transportation Authority staff may simply not be exposed to the marketing effort.
Foust also shared concerns that WETA’s board is not meeting regularly. Connolly said this is untrue, but explained it was tough that only four of the five WETA board seats are filled, making it difficult to get a quorum. He said the board does meet once a month regularly, or more often if possible. The meeting minutes from this year on the WETAs’ website are from Feb. 6, March 31, May 8 and June 19.
“I don’t know who he’s meeting with regularly,” Foust said.
Gov. Jerry Brown did recently fill one of the vacant seats on the board, naming Vice Admiral Jody Breckenridge as chair of the WETA board. Brown still needs to appoint one more member to the board.
“I’m looking forward to actually interacting with her on ways to improve the marketing and promotion of the ferry service,” Foust said. “There are robust advocates for a strong ferry system to alleviate the tremendous impact on Caltrain, but you have to have a plan or a strategy.”
An unsuccessful South City ferry service could affect Redwood City’s plans since it would need to make sure there are proven ridership figures before putting in a public ferry service, Foust said. If the South City ferry doesn’t succeed, there is very little likelihood this will go to Redwood City, Matsumoto added.
WETA provides ferry service to the San Francisco Ferry Building and Pier 41/Fisherman’s Wharf, Harbor Bay and Vallejo. In addition, there is seasonal service to AT&T Park and Angel Island.