Two years after COVID-19 swept the world, the Bay Area, like many maritime regions, continues to feel the effects of the pandemic. During this time, the Bay Area’s maritime industry has been working to rebound from the impacts while investing in its future, whether it is seaports finding ways to ease the bottlenecks stemming from pandemic-driven cargo records or a transportation agency working to maintain services as ferry riders slowly return.
Here’s a look at what’s happening in the region:
PORT OF OAKLAND
For the past several months, the Port of Oakland has been working to solve a major shipping problem: moving export cargo.
The Northern California seaport known for handling much of the state’s agricultural and refrigerated protein exports has been seeing export numbers fall from skip sailings due to the record surge in imports and subsequent congestion and shippers that lack equipment to export goods.
In late February, Oakland reported a 10.8% drop in exports in 2021 and a 10.8% decrease in January 2022 because there weren’t enough vessels and containers. Pre-pandemic, the port typically handled an equal amount of imports and exports.
“We’re historically the leading gateway to Asia for U.S. exports—especially agricultural exports,” Port Maritime Director Bryan Brandes said to stakeholders at a recent virtual meeting. “It’s up to us to make sure that the gateway is wide open and that’s what we’ll be focused on throughout 2022.”
One way the port hopes to help exporters is through the creation of a “pop-up” yard, which began operating in early March.
Located off-terminal, the 25-acre paved yard allows empty containers to be stored temporarily to be ready for exporters to place on vessels and allows truckers to bypass marine terminals to pick up containers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to offer exporters and truck drivers financial incentives to use the yard.
The port is also trying to secure more containers and more ship space to export products.
Meanwhile, the port and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ San Francisco District are working toward helping bigger container vessels maneuver the Oakland Harbor by widening the turning basins there.
The harbor, currently able to accommodate ships carrying 6,500 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), would be able to make room for vessels carrying as many as 19,000 TEUs and stretching 1,310 feet with the proposed project.
Clean energy is a major priority for the port, which recently secured $5.2 million from the Maritime Administration for electrical power upgrades. The port plans to use the money to build a fuel-cell site and a solar-panel installation with battery storage, as well as replace an electrical substation and link it to a biomass generator.
This will help toward Oakland’s long-term energy goals. The port recently announced an 86% drop in diesel particulate matter emissions, a 40% reduction in nitrous oxide emissions and a 95% decrease in sulfur oxides compared to 2005 levels. Those results beat Oakland’s original goals in the Maritime Air Quality Improvement Program.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA WETA
The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority has seen ridership dramatically fluctuate in the last three years.
After serving a record 3.2 million riders in 2019, WETA’s daily ridership plummeted 92% as COVID-19 forced people to begin staying at home in March 2020, according to the agency’s 2022 report on the State of the San Francisco Bay Ferry.
After the COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in 2020 and riders slowly started to return, WETA’s Board of Directors agreed last summer to enact the Pandemic Recovery Program, which would offer decreased fares for a year and other ridership incentives.
The decision resulted in a 164% uptick in ridership, according to the report.
Securing a $26-million assistance grant from the American Rescue Plan, announced in March, provides WETA much-needed financial relief as it continues to recover ridership and circumvents “the prospect of severe service cuts and potential labor force reduction next fiscal year due to revenue shortfalls caused by lower transit demand.”
While new COVID-19 variants and delayed plans to return to the workplace have hampered recovery, ridership numbers continue to improve, with WETA reporting a 43% increase in weekday passenger numbers from January to February. Weekend ridership in February surpassed pre-pandemic seasonal averages, according to WETA.
To further enhance the ridership experience, WETA’s Board agreed in March to sign with two companies: San Francisco-based Swiftly Inc. and Anchor Operating System.
Swiftly will offer WETA passengers real-time data on ferry arrivals and departures that can be accessed via smartphone apps, the San Francisco Bay Ferry website and terminal signs.
Anchor Operating System will offer a ticketing system that will work with Clipper and make buying special events and ferry tickets easier.
Both will launch later this year, WETA said.
“Making the ferry easier to ride is crucial in rebuilding ridership,” said WETA Executive Director Seamus Murphy. “Adding real-time predictions and streamlining our ticketing systems will boost the already strong passenger experience and better welcome new riders on board.”
Meanwhile, WETA is planning for a greener future. In February, the agency secured $3.4 million in federal transit funding to construct its first zero-emissions electric ferry, which would link Treasure Island to Mission Bay. It will be the first of a four-ferry fleet in the new service.
When it enters service in 2024, the new ferry will temporarily serve a terminal at Pier 48 ½, where WETA offers a special event service for Golden State Warriors home games, before shifting to a new Mission Bay Ferry Terminal that is set to be finished as early as 2025.
“The Port of San Francisco is excited to welcome more ferry service connecting people, neighborhoods and jobs,” said Elaine Forbes, executive director of the Port of San Francisco. “Electric ferry service is especially welcome as we seek to continue to expand green transportation options as we work to address climate change.”
POWER ENGINEERING CONSTRUCTION CO.
Alameda-based heavy civil and marine contractor Power Engineering Construction Co. saw the completion of two major projects in March.
The first was the opening of San Francisco’s Fireboat Station 35, a new floating fire station at Pier 22 ½ along the Embarcadero. Power Engineering Construction was part of a joint venture team that won the San Francisco Public Works-managed, $50.5 million design-build project that also included Swinerton, Shah Kawasaki Architects and Liftech Consultants.
Power Engineering Construction designed and built the marine-side components of the project, including the pilings, the 173-foot-long, 96-foot-wide steel float, the new fixed steel pier, the vehicle access ramp and the firefighter access gangway that allows for quick movement between land and barge.
Swinerton built the two-story, 15,000-square-foot building that sets atop the float, Fireboat Station
The project was five years in the making between permitting, design and construction. The steel float spent one year moored at Treasure Island while the building was erected before tugboats carefully pushed it overnight at low tide in December of 2021 to its final destination at Pier 22 ½.
“The project was both incredibly fun and challenging at the same time,” said William Knudson, Power Engineering’s Project Manager.
The project had very specific design parameters. The structure had to be built for longevity with little to no need for maintenance. There were also special design considerations put into place to both reduce saltwater corrosion and then account for it when it does happen. That included attaching additional anodes to the steel and using specialty paint below the waterline to help reduce corrosion, Knudson said. Extra thick steel was also used in the fabrication of the float, so that when corrosion actually does occur, the structure will remain sound, he added.
Anchored by four guide piles, the steel float allows the structure to adapt to the natural tide and future impacts related to sea-level rise and earthquakes. Three fireboats and rescue watercraft will be based at the new station, situated behind the historic fireboat house that will still operate as Engine Company No. 35.
“It’s really satisfying to walk by the new station now and to see the fire boats moored to the facility,” Knudson said.
Interim San Francisco Public Works Director Carla Short lauded the project.
“There is no other floating fire station in the Western Hemisphere, and we believe that there’s only one other in the world, in the waters off of Tokyo,” Short said. “The San Francisco floating fire station, however, was designed especially for us. This amazing new firehouse will play a vital role in safeguarding San Francisco.”
The second venture is the completion of the new Treasure Island Ferry Terminal, a $33.6 million project that includes a ferry terminal with a fixed concrete pier, gangway, steel float and integrated infrastructure for upgrades to all electric in the future. The new terminal connects to a land-based transportation hub on Treasure Island, the home of 24,000 new residents by 2035.
The design-build project started nearly three years ago and involved building an 815-foot-long concrete breakwater as well. “The breakwater is made up of vertical precast concrete sheet piling with concrete batter piles every 6 to 18 feet for lateral load strength and a continuous concrete cap cast over both the batter and sheet piling,” according to the company, which has constructed five other ferry terminals on San Francisco Bay.
PORT OF REDWOOD CITY
The Port of Redwood City continues to weather the pandemic’s impact on business. The port saw a lot of construction-related cargo come across its docks as public agencies used the downtime to move forward on building projects.
The port also saw solid scrap metal export numbers, which Port Executive Director Kristine Zortman attributed to a rise in consumers making home improvements and getting rid of old appliances for modern upgrades.
The port ended its fiscal year with $9 million in gross revenue, 3% more than the prior year.
“We were able to see revenues go up on some new uses, short-term uses for space and rent,” Zortman said.
While the port did see a slight decrease in tonnage—a 291,000 metric ton-drop in total cargo tonnage, falling to 1.8 million from the same time a year ago—officials project growth to 2 million tons annually, if not higher, Zorrtman said.
“We continue to want to build and expand upon our cargo portfolio,” she said, adding that a big focus for the port is to see if there are opportunities to relieve some of the congestion in other areas.
The pandemic also offered the port an opportunity to reimagine its waterfront.
When Bay Area commercial fishermen were struggling in the pandemic, the port offered itself as a place of business. The port secured commercial fishing vessel Pioneer Seafoods, which has been making fresh fish sales nearly every weekend.
The port further enhanced the waterfront with a new $2 million public fishing pier that opened in March, replacing an old wooden pier built in the 1960s with sleek wire cables for waterfront viewing, interpretational signage highlighting local fish species, ADA improvements and peek-a-boo decking to see the water underfoot.
Events were added too, including a springtime concert series that is expected to continue through mid-June.
“It’s the first time that we’ve ever done it for the port here, but we’re able to do that truly because we now have a community that knows we’re here, that wants to come down on the water, and we’re able to activate it,” said Zortman.
With the community’s renewed interest in the waterfront, the agency is now seeking proposals from developers for their vision for the port as a recreational space. The project site encompasses 7.6 acres of land bordered by a municipal marina, Redwood Creek, Beeger Road and Seaport Boulevard, with an additional 5.8 acres that could be developed in the future. The marina could be part of the concept.
“We’re looking at the development community: what do you think of our waterfront?” Zortman said. “Can we have a hotel? Can we have restaurants? Can we have more visitors serving cultural museums? What can we have down here, and how can we continue to redevelop some of our underutilized assets?”
A proposed future ferry service that would connect Redwood City to San Francisco and/or Oakland is also moving forward.
The City Council and the WETA board have recently advanced the business plan for the ferry that will be heading to the San Mateo County Transportation Authority in the next month. If the business plan is accepted by all the respective agencies, the proposal would move into environmental review and permitting, as well as conceptual design and engineering.
Zortman said she hopes to have a ferry service by 2026-2027.
“I think that there’s a lot of opportunity on the cargo side, as well as potential redevelopment along our commercial waterfront,” she said. “I definitely sense there’s a great enthusiasm from those types of sectors in exploring something new but unique to the region. I think it’s a great time for us to be growing.”
PORT OF WEST SACRAMENTO
The Port of West Sacramento plans to pursue federal funding to advance some of its big potential projects.
In March, port commissioners agreed to spend $200,000 on professional grant-writing and other support services in anticipation of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funding opportunities, which are expected to roll out this year.
Two projects that would potentially benefit from the federal funding include the Enterprise Bridge project and the modernization of its North Terminal.
The bridge project could help to curb traffic congestion, air pollution and commuter-truck traffic conflicts in the region while fostering development of the Seaway and Stone Lock properties, according to the port’s staff report.
About $5 million would be needed for a feasibility study and a project approval – environmental document, which must be in progress before the project is eligible for design funding, the port said.
“The port and city of West Sacramento are partnering to advance this project, and port-related IIJA funding may be the best near-term opportunity to initiate pre-design activities,” according to the staff report.
For potential North Terminal Modernization Improvements, the port would need an estimated $10 million to launch the program, which could encompass building a new general cargo warehouse, clearing out old cargo-handling facilities, adding electric vehicle-charging infrastructure and cleaning up soil/groundwater.
“These projects will continue the port’s transition away from bulk cargoes handled by conveyor systems to a focus on the bagged rice export business, while preparing new yard areas for container storage and project cargo (e.g., wind turbine components),” according to the port. “Collectively, these improvements would enable the port’s terminal operator (SSA Pacific) to capture a larger market share of California rice exports originating from the Sacramento Valley and be more competitive for container storage and project cargo opportunities, while expanding the port’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure to reduce the North Terminal’s carbon footprint.”
Meanwhile, the port announced in November that it has started the process of demolishing and cleaning up the six-acre Equilon Enterprises, LLC, (dba Shell Oil Products US) petroleum tank farm site in Pioneer Bluff, which has been in service since the 1940s.
This step was more than five years in the making, when the port and the company agreed on a deal that phased out the facility’s operations over four years. After the property is cleaned up, the port plans to work with city officials to turn it into a mixed-use development along the waterfront.
“This transaction is a big step in the planned de-industrialization of West Sacramento’s Pioneer Bluff District,” Yolo County Supervisor and Port Commission chairman Oscar Villegas said in November.