Ferries Under Fire

Published December 1, 1999

Ferry boats each year provide 100 million passengers in 35 states with an alternative means of transportation that not only relieves traffic congestion, but often provides breathtaking views of their natural surroundings.

In fact, the popularity of ferries has grown in recent years, thanks to new waterfront developments and the employment of faster boats, whose speeds now can exceed 30 mph.

Cars and buses cannot float, and it beats swimming to your job. Everybody wins, and all is well with the world, right?

Fat chance. The diesel-powered ferries are among the latest polluters targeted by environmentalists and the federal government. This time it is the city of San Francisco’s plan to create the world’s “best” ferry service that has come under attack.

According to a recent study issued by Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group, the proposed new fleet of 120 diesel-powered ferries would be 10 times more polluting per passenger than automobiles, and almost 13 times more polluting than buses. Bluewater has the support of the Earth Island Institute, the San Francisco Bay Association, and other environmental groups.

The new fleet, expected to cost about $2 billion and serve more than three dozen ports in the area, was proposed by the Bay Area Council (BAC), a business group seeking to address the city’s growing congestion dilemma. According to BAC President Wright McPeak, the expanded fleet could eliminate 15 to 20 million car trips annually.

Bluewater’s study is yet another sign that environmentalists are taking a closer look at non-conventional modes of transportation, including snowmobiles, watercraft, and all-terrain vehicles.

The Environmental Protection Agency is not far behind. By November, the agency is expected to complete a rule that would for the first time regulate emissions from diesel-powered marine engines.

Beginning in 2006, the rule would allow only 7.2 grams per kilowatt hour of exhaust emissions that contribute to ozone–about 50 percent less than is currently generated by the engines.

According to Eric Goldstein, an attorney for the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council, ferries “have gotten a free pass” while environmentalists were busy focusing on cars and sport utility vehicles. “Ferry engines may deserve scrutiny,” he said.

The Bluewater study analyzed emission and ridership data for cars, buses, and an existing ferry route in San Francisco. Critics contend that Bluewater failed to consider the amount of time cars will spend in gridlock in the future, and overestimated the size of the ferries in the proposed fleet.

“They’ve used some fairly skewed, biased assumptions” to attack expansion of the ferry service, according to BAC’s McPeak, who added that Bluewater rejected Bay Area Council proposals to use cleaner-burning diesel engines or alternative fuels to power the fleet.