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New Head of Water Emergency Transportation Authority Plans Ferry Expansion

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- A new director has been appointed to oversee the agency that operates the Bay Area's ferry system and he has an ambitious vision to restore the ferries to their former glory.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of people drive into San Francisco to work. And even though it sits right on a bay, there are only 17 ferry boats serving the entire city. If that sounds crazy to you, you may be surprised to learn the situation was no accident.

In the 1920s and 1930s people in the North- and East Bay took ferry boats into San Francisco to work.

After the the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, the government shut down the ferry system so people would have to use -- and pay for -- the spans. According to Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council, it wasn't until the 1980s that the ferries began making a comeback.

"Before the bridges were built, there were 50 million trips a year on San Francisco Bay -- ferry trips. Today, we're now back to three million," he said.

Wunderman has been appointed by Gov. Newsom to head up the Water Emergency Transportation Authority or WETA, the regional agency supervising ferry service on the bay.

The boats would be a means to move people if a major earthquake should ever wipe out ground transportation.

But Wunderman's vision goes far beyond that. He intends to quadruple the fleet and increase daily commute ridership from the current 7,500 passengers a day to almost 40,000 and he would like to open ferry terminals in cities up and down the bay.

"From Hercules to Martinez to points south of Redwood City, we have a large working population that commutes north and south," he said.

Although funding is always a challenge, Wunderman says that, while other transit systems have their critics, those who use the bay as their highway tend to love it.

"There is only one group of happy commuters in the Bay Area," he said, "and that is the group of people who are able to use the ferries."

Matthew King rides a ferry into the city from his home in Vallejo. He enjoys the ride and doesn't understand why there are still so few boats available.

"Yes, it's very strange," he said. "I mean, it's an easier way to get around and you don't have to pay the toll crossing the bridge."

Wunderman says government regulations make it difficult to do anything on or near the water these days but, with concerns about traffic and climate change, he believes a robust ferry system is an attractive solution for some of those problems.

He doesn't want to wait another generation to make his vision a reality.

"When we get to 2030," he said, "when you look out on the bay, it will be hard not to see a passenger ferry going past."

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