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Max Ebb — To the Guillotine

“The trouble with democracy is that there are never enough weekday evenings. “I’m not sure who first said that, but it rings true. My local Harbor Commission, Planning Commission, Transportation Commission, and City Council all expect citizens to exercise their right to participate in City government at evening sessions that fill up the calendar and usually run late. Despite this state of affairs, there was a surprisingly good turnout at the last Harbor Commission meeting. After I filled out a speaker’s card and turned around to find a seat, I was surprised to see Lee Helm in the front row.

“Like, what brings you here?” she asked as I took the empty seat next to her. It seems that even when a meeting room is crowded, people tend to avoid that front row. But I like it, and so does Lee.

“Rate hikes in the marina,” I said. “Someone needs to tell these people that if they’re going to raise our fees, the least they can do is fix the broken docks. But Lee, you don’t even have a boat; why are you here?”

“This is way more important than a few more pesos on your monthly marina bill,” she answered. “It, like, threatens the waterfront as we know it. We have a whole coalition mobilized to oppose this train wreck.”

“What train wreck?” I asked. “And why don’t I know about it?”

“The ferry terminal,” she sighed. “Don’t you read the comments in the local online paper?”

Max Ebb_Electric ferry image
This all-electric fast ferry is in service in Norway, carrying 147 passengers at 23 knots. Read more to find out how this relates to the Bay Area.
© 2023

Before Lee had a chance to explain what was so terrible about a new ferry terminal, the meeting came to order and small talk was cut off. After some formalities, the first speaker, Armanda Legg, was called to the lectern.

“The Ferry Authority says this is about equity,” the young man began his commentary. “They say that it will open up the downtown job market to people in the non-wealthy neighborhoods near the harbor. That’s pure fantasy. By the Ferry Authority’s own data, 90% of their passengers earn above median income, and 40% are above 200k.”

“I could have told them that,” I whispered to Lee. “It’s not the same crowd that rides the bus.”

“Look at the per-ride subsidy level.” Armanda continued. “The operating subsidy alone is $33 per ride. That’s per one-way ride. Every time some tech bro commutes to the City and back, it’s like they get a check for 66 bucks. And that’s just operating subsidy — crank in the capitalization of a $120 million terminal, two fast diesel ferries at $30 million apiece, and about $15 million the City is expected to pay for shoreside improvements. Depending on the interest rate you choose, the total per-person subsidy could top a Franklin each day. It’s nuts. It’s as far from equity as public policy could ever be. Especially when transit ridership all over the state is in trouble.”

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