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California Delta commuters stymied by unreliable ferry service

California Delta commuters stymied by unreliable ferry service
California Delta commuters stymied by unreliable ferry service 06:54

RIO VISTA - Ferry troubles on the Delta dating back more than a decade are leading to nightmare commute times that have some East Bay drivers fuming. 

The Real McCoy II is the ferry that connects Rio Vista to Ryer Island and eventually the Sacramento Area. Without it, there is no Highway 84, but the boat has been plagued with mechanical problems since it hit the water in early 2011, and those problems continue to this day.

For Betty and Bob Sutherland, every trip away from home takes a lot of extra planning, and hopefully a little luck.

"There are no red marks or closed signs so we assume that that's working," Betty said, looking at a website showing local ferry service. "But here's the Real McCoy."

Suppose the Sutherlands want to make a trip to the relatively nearby city of Rio Vista. They would leave their small community of Snug Harbor for the six minute drive to the Real McCoy, and if they hit the timing right the full trip into town might take 15 to 20 minutes.

"Look at it honey," Bob said, driving up to the Real McCoy launch. "They've got it up again."

The Real McCoy II is down for maintenance, so it's over to option B: The J-Mack cable ferry on the other side of Ryer Island. This makes the trip a bit longer, maybe 35 minutes. But when the J-Mack is down, the drive gets much longer.

"Let me see, 30, 20," Bob estimated. "It's about 50 to 55 minutes going the long way around from here."

So with mechanical troubles for one ferry, and what residents describe as inconsistent staffing at the other, the people who live and work here are often left wondering how to get where they're going, and when
they should leave. It's a situation that has now lasted for more than 10 years.

"It just breaks all the time," Bob said of the Real McCoy's problems. "The maintenance on that thing is just astronomical."

"We even talked to our congressman, and all the important people in the main Caltrans office," Betty said of their efforts to find a fix. "Nobody can seem to help us. And it's not just us. It's the farmers."

KPIX was on the way to meet with those farmers when everyone ran into a closed J-Mack ferry.

"The lack of predictability of when these ferries are open, it's a big mystery," rancher Richard Hamilton said at the inactive ferry landing.

"We'll go around Grand Island," he said of the drive ahead. "Then we'll cross the steamboat slough bridge. Then will turn onto Jefferson Boulevard."

About 35 minutes of winding levee roads later, the group has covered a trip that would have been a few minutes on the ferry, and maybe two miles of driving.

"Just imagine if one of us, right now, were to have a medical emergency, a heart attack, or a car accident," Mark Esperson said of the delays. "It would take 40 minutes for someone to get here."

Esperson says the unpredictability has made farming difficult, as well as life in general for everyone here. And after more than a decade of this, many are running out of patience.

"We can't get people to work," Esperson said. "I'm frustrated by the fact that the school kids don't know when the buses are showing up, what direction they're coming from. Everybody you talk to is frustrated about this."

"This is not just Betty and I," Bob Sutherland added. " This is all these people on this island. It's 'Caltrans does not care about us.' Period."

Caltrans did not speak with KPIX on camera about the Real McCoy, but they did answer some questions. For starters, the agency says the ferry is, on average, out of service about 24% of the year. As for maintenance costs, KPIX is told the five-year-average is about $2.7 million. That would mean total maintenance on the boat has exceeded it's $4.4 million price tag.

But the real question is what do you do about a critical lifeline that is simply underperforming. To that: Caltrans says "The State regularly looks at possible solutions or improvements for challenges like we are seeing with the ferries in the Delta. Solutions currently under investigation are possible replacement with zero emissions vehicles and potential new bridge construction options.'

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