Struggling South San Francisco ferry service looks to expand to attract more customers 

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority is considering luring new riders to the ferry with an extra evening departure and service to Pier 41. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • The Water Emergency Transportation Authority is considering luring new riders to the ferry with an extra evening departure and service to Pier 41.

With its fledgling service struggling mightily, South San Francisco ferry officials are exploring new ways to attract passengers.

The Peninsula-East Bay service that was launched with much fanfare in June has fallen far short of expectations. For the last week of February, the service averaged only 131 daily boardings — barely one-third of the projected ridership.

It has so far recorded a dismal 8.4 percent farebox recovery rate, meaning nearly 92 percent of its $3.4 million operating budget is subsidized by local and state taxpayers who don’t use the service.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority, the regional agency operating the ferry service, is considering adding more routes and special service to the line. Currently, the agency offers three morning trips between South San Francisco and the East Bay, but only two in the afternoon. In order to attract more riders and have a more balanced service, it’s proposing a third afternoon trip.

The WETA also is examining the possibility of adding two trips a week between South San Francisco and Pier 41 in The City. The midday trips would cater to more recreational travelers and school groups and would run from May to October, according to WETA spokesman Ernest Sanchez.

The agency is also in talks with the Blue and Gold Fleet — a private ferry provider — about sharing crew members as a way to improve its operating efficiencies.

The WETA’s board of directors will discuss the proposals at its meeting Thursday. If the service enhancements are approved they could take effect April 29, Sanchez said. While adding the new routes would cost nearly $230,000, the expanded service is seen as essential to drawing more customers. Sanchez said a main deterrent for potential passengers has been the lack of a third afternoon trip.

“The additional commute departure provides customers with a more convenient and flexible schedule, while the midday service provides a much-requested water connection,” he said. “These options provide our customers with significant service enhancements in the most cost-effective manner possible.“

Attracting passengers to the system soon is key to the WETA’s survival. About $2.7 million — roughly 80 percent of the agency’s operating budget — comes from regional toll funds administered by the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

As part of the requirement for receiving the annual subsidy, the ferry service must achieve a 30 percent farebox recovery rate by its third year of operation. More passengers means a greater farebox recovery rate, and ferry systems have proven to be efficient transit providers. The Alameda Ferry service boasts a farebox recovery rate of 56.4 percent, the second highest among the Bay Area’s two dozen local transportation agencies.

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Will Reisman

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