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Ferry Service 

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Making Waves

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Michael Amsler


County and local officials question plans for Petaluma commuter ferry service

By Paula Harris

SCOTT TREE has nervous energy to spare. Slender, bearded, and with an intense gaze, the 44-year-old local entrepreneur dashes rather than strolls. In one hand, he carries a sheaf of elaborate plans for a local ferry service to San Francisco; in the other he grips a miniature black cell phone, which he promptly drops in all his frenetic haste. "Smallest on the market," he mutters, retrieving the high-tech toy and rapidly reassembling it.

The fast-moving businessman--one of the original founders in 1971 of the now-defunct Rent-A-Wreck car rental company and now CEO of the holding company International Seabridge at Port Sonoma, a marina at the mouth of the Petaluma River--has some lofty goals. By mid-to-late summer, he says, his plans to implement a high-speed ferry service between Petaluma and San Francisco will change life for North Bay commuters.

Some city and county officials are skeptical about the plan.

Time will tell whether this ambitious project will ever come to fruition, but the possible implications of the $40 million project are certainly tantalizing.

The service will consist of a fleet of French-designed, U.S.-built quadrimarans--sleek- looking four-hulled vessels capable of gliding over the water at speeds of 60 knots or more, with, according to Tree, little noise and virtually no wake. "They look like spaceships," he laughs, gesturing to an artist's rendering of the futuristic-looking vessels that, he says, are under construction in Maryland.

Tree declined to name the shipyard, but says he has international licensing rights for building the quadrimarans.

He envisions the ferries serving Petaluma (from the Petaluma Marina), Port Sonoma, San Francisco (at the ferry building), and San Francisco Airport (at the seaplane terminal). A trip from Petaluma to San Francisco would take less than an hour, he says, and would solve the Highway 101 transportation problems facing voters--and taxpayers--this year.

"The biggest effect [of the ferries] will be on the Highway 101 traffic, and it won't cost the taxpayers a nickel," he says. "Commuters would get off the highway before the Petaluma Bridge."

The service will consist of a fleet of French-designed, U.S.-built quadrimarans--sleek-looking four-hulled vessels capable of gliding over the water at speeds of 60 knots or more, with, according to Tree, little noise and virtually no wake. "They look like spaceships," he laughs, gesturing to an artist's rendering of the futuristic-looking vessels that, he says, are under construction in Maryland.

Tree declined to name the shipyard, but says he has international licensing rights for building the quadrimarans.

He envisions the ferries serving Petaluma (from the Petaluma Marina), Port Sonoma, San Francisco (at the ferry building), and San Francisco Airport (at the seaplane terminal). A trip from Petaluma to San Francisco would take less than an hour, he says, and would solve the Highway 101 transportation problems facing voters--and taxpayers--this year.

"The biggest effect [of the ferries] will be on the Highway 101 traffic, and it won't cost the taxpayers a nickel," he says. "Commuters would get off the highway before the Petaluma Bridge."

He says the ferry service would begin with one or two 30-meter boats that could carry 250 passengers and eventually add more vessels to the service, including drive-on-drive-off ferries that could transport vehicles. He also plans to have bus-shuttle services to the Petaluma Marina.

A one-way fare would cost $10, but there would be a greatly reduced commuter subscription package.

According to Tree, the project does not require much approval from regulatory agencies, and no EIRs are needed, because he plans to use existing terminals. "All we need is approval from the U.S. Coast Guard and California Public Utilities Commission," he says. "There's virtually no shore erosion and less wake at 60 knots [from a quadrimaran] than with a conventional ferry at 12 knots."

But Mitch Matsumura, transportation analyst with the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, says Tree has yet to file an application with that state regulatory agency. When he does, there is a 30-day period for public comment. If there's no protest, an administrative law judge will be assigned to the application and make recommendations to the commission. "He'd need to file insurance information with us, and the vessel needs to pass safety inspections by the Coast Guard, and the commission staff needs to inspect the docking facilities," explains Matsumura.

"But the environmental impact may be positive because there would be fewer people using the highways. If the public is not behind it, if there are protests, that would slow the process down."

REACTIONS to Tree's vision are mixed. "He's got a long way to go," comments Sonoma County Supervisor Jim Harberson, who represents Petaluma. "I urge him to start doing some research. There's been a series of failed proposals at Port Sonoma. There are going to be all sorts of land-use and traffic problems. It's a very detailed process--you don't just come roaring in and set this up."

But fellow county supe Paul Kelley says the project sounds like "a great addition to the commuter services in Sonoma County."

"It's very exciting," enthuses Jessica Vann Gardner, director of the Petaluma Visitors' Bureau. "It would be a great opportunity to get commuters off the freeway and more visitors into Petaluma."

Shawn Cox, operations manager of the Blue and Gold Fleet, says that while the idea is in preliminary stages, Blue and Gold would consider operating the quadrimaran service. "I don't know what kind of ridership [Tree] hopes to get. The fare would be expensive, and he needs to get subsidies and community support, but if he's going through the proper channels and if he gets it done, we'd be happy to put in a competitive bid to be the operator. We'll see what he comes up with."

However, Cox questions the quadrimarans' high speed. "If a couple is out on the Petaluma River on their houseboat and there's a boat coming at 60 knots, there's the potential for a seriously dangerous situation," he says. "There's no speed limit in the river, but once people find out, I'm not sure they'd want a 60-knot vessel blowing by."

Petaluma City Councilman Matt Maguire also wonders about safety and environmental concerns. "The ferry could create a wake that erodes the banks and affects the wetland areas," he cautions.

Petaluma Planning Director Pamela Tuft says she met with Tree last November to discuss these issues, but hasn't heard much from him since. "[Tree] needs to start the process," she says. "This project will be subject to conditional-use permits and environmental review. He's very energetic, and I was impressed with his enthusiasm, but he still has to go through the process."

Tree is undeterred by a possible drawn-out procedure and vows to go ahead with his plans. "This will change the whole dynamic of commuting," he says, and with that he grabs his cell phone and dashes out the door.

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From the April 2-8, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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