For years, traffic snarls along the San Diego (405) Freeway have been part of the daily routine of thousands of residents who commute between the Westside and the South Bay.
But imagine this: Instead of climbing into their cars for an anxiety-filled ride along the county’s second busiest highway, the commuters mount a ferryboat at sunset for an hour’s sojourn at sea. Ocean air, rather than exhaust fumes, fills their lungs.
Although still in its infancy, the idea of a commuter ferry service is being touted as a novel way to relieve freeway congestion, reduce the region’s smog and boost tourism at local beaches. The idea is making the rounds at city halls up and down the coast.
“I think it would be wonderful if you worked at TRW,” the Redondo Beach aerospace company, said Paul Foley, an associate planner for the city of Santa Monica. “Take a van to the Redondo Pier (after work). You get on the water taxi to let you off in Santa Monica as the sun sets on the water. Read the paper, your book.
“It certainly seems a lot better to me than sitting on the 405 waiting for the car in front of you to move 10 feet,” added Foley, who lives in Manhattan Beach.
But those discussing the idea also caution that it’s too early to say whether it would float. The ferry service could be a tough sell, say transit officials who know how difficult it is to get commuters to give up their car keys.
“People always have an excuse for not giving up their car,” said John Wills, who runs the MAX commuter bus service for the city of Torrance. “They always want the other guy to do it. They say it doesn’t go where they want to go. They say it takes longer. They say they want the flexibility to go out after work or work later.”
Santa Monica planners developed the water taxi idea in June and held a meeting two months later with planners from Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Malibu, Marina del Rey and Venice to gauge other communities’ interest. “The consensus is that everyone is very interested in pursuing it,” Foley said.
In September, the Redondo Beach City Council--which recently created a visitors’ bureau to lure out-of-towners to the city’s pier, beach and other attractions--directed its staff to work with Santa Monica to study the proposal. No estimated cost or ferry schedule has been developed.
Other city councils have not formally adopted the plan, but the idea has sparked widespread interest.
“I know there have been people from time to time who fantasize a way out of the congestion of the Pacific Coast Highway,” said Santa Monica Councilman Dennis Zane. “It’s clearly an interesting idea.”
Nevertheless, officials say it could be years, if ever, before the first ferry plies coastal waters.
Santa Monica planners are just beginning their study of the proposal. Along with projecting how many regular patrons a ferry commuter service would attract, officials will study environmental consequences, funding sources, parking requirements and the cost of improving or adding breakwaters and landing sites at municipal piers.
“I think everybody thinks it could be a very good idea,” said Scott Davey, a planner at the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors. “We support the concept, but we don’t know if it’s practical.”
To have a significant impact on air quality, roughly 100,000 drivers who travel 40 miles a day would have to be persuaded to use the ferry, a South Coast Air Quality Management District spokeswoman said. Also, to cut down on pollutants, the ferry would have to run on electricity or clean-burning fuels.
Even some of those who say they would consider taking the ferry recreationally doubt that it would be convenient or quick enough to attract many regular users.
“I’d take the boat once in a blue moon,” said Ernie O’Dell, president of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce. “If I were going to Alice’s Restaurant on the Malibu pier, I don’t think I would take it. By the time I took the boat there, ate dinner and took it back, I would be exhausted.”
To East Coast transplants accustomed to using ferries, it may seem remarkable that cities along the Santa Monica Bay have never put their waterway to work. But it has been tried previously.
In 1935, a water taxi company outlined plans for a regularly scheduled passenger service that would run between Malibu and Redondo Beach, stopping at all municipal piers en route. The proposal quickly fizzled.
In 1979, Caltrans briefly ran a ferryboat from Malibu to Santa Monica for Malibu residents who were stranded by a major landslide along the Pacific Coast Highway.