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Floating the Idea of Southland Water Transportation

Times Staff Writer

One man boarding the WaterBus on this sunstruck afternoon in Marina del Rey is headed home after a beer at a waterfront restaurant. A weary couple clambers on with two bikes. The motor whirs loudly as the little craft moves into the channel, seagulls cawing overhead.

“Look! Seals!” someone calls out, and even seasoned commuters who ride this route several times a week pivot toward the three sleek harbor seals slumbering on a nearby dock.

It is a typical weekend aboard the WaterBus, the only county-run public water transit in Los Angeles County that encourages residents to leave their cars at home and travel by boat -- whether to a restaurant, Mother’s Beach or the new Ralphs supermarket over on Admiralty Way.

On its face, this $1-a-ride shuttle that circles within Marina del Rey is a bare-bones service for residents and tourists.

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Yet some wonder if it could grow into something more. Ridership has climbed since the county halted a less successful shuttle and launched the WaterBus two months ago, and some residents say they are taking the service as a way to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic exacerbated by the building boom sweeping the Westside.

“If they’re doing any kind of construction, you’re dead meat,” said Mary Redmond, 61. “Lincoln -- it’s a parking lot. So is Admiralty Way.” And if she were to drive to the new Ralphs plaza, “There won’t be a parking spot in sight.”

Over the years, dreams have come and gone of a coastal L.A. served by commuter ferries, much like those in Seattle, San Francisco and New York. Today, no agency is actively pursuing the idea, but some wonder if its time has come.

With gas more than $3 a gallon and coastal traffic in gridlock, could cities lining Santa Monica Bay be ripe for fleets of water shuttles?

Could the WaterBus add a loop to Santa Monica Pier and back? Could a larger version carry commuters from, say, San Pedro and Redondo Beach to the Westside?

Highly unlikely, some officials say. Costly and inefficient, say others.

“Not something in our purview,” says Dave Sotero, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

But others don’t dismiss the idea so quickly.

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Water transit is a whimsical idea, “but there may be a practical angle to it,” says Marina del Rey resident S. David Freeman, who oversees the Port of Los Angeles and drives the congested 405 and 110 freeways daily to his office in San Pedro.

“Nothing is ever total whimsy in this world,” added Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments: “As we grow and develop, it’s an option that’s clearly going to have to be considered.”

For now, the little WaterBus operates only on summer weekends with four boats holding from 20 to 58 passengers, and ends Sept. 4. It makes six stops on the three-mile run, including the restaurant-lined dock at Fisherman’s Village. There, passengers line up at a quaint blue-shingled hut to buy a $1 ticket for one ride or a $5 all-day pass.

David Vaughn, 49, is exactly the kind of resident promoters hope to attract.

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“I drive 10 hours a day. I drive at work, and then drive an hour to get to work,” said Vaughn, a U.S. Postal Service equipment operator who has begun parking his car on weekends and traveling by boat to the supermarket or local restaurants.

The shuttle reminds Mary Ciecek, 26, of the water taxis she rode in Venice, Italy, during a European trip. She tried out the WaterBus with a Marina del Rey friend and generally approved, although she found the pace too leisurely, unlike Venice “where it was just like clockwork.”

Ciecek, who commutes from Redondo Beach to the Mid-Wilshire area, said she would consider water travel if it would take less time than driving.

She paused, thinking hard:

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“If there was a ferry that took me to Santa Monica, and then, if I could take a subway to where I work.... “

But no subway runs under Wilshire Boulevard, and no ferry connects Redondo Beach and Santa Monica, although, over the decades, big-thinking planners have fought for both.

“Ferry Service Touted as Method to Ease Freeway Commuter Congestion,” reads a 1991 headline in The Times above a story about Santa Monica and several South Bay cities studying ferry travel as an alternative to the San Diego Freeway, which even then was jammed.

The idea foundered because of engineering challenges, recalled Santa Monica planner Paul Foley. A floating platform would be required at Santa Monica Pier so passengers could board and disembark, he said, and a deteriorating breakwater needed repairs.

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An even grander plan surfaced later in the 1990s, proposed by William T. “Ted” Gurnee of La Jolla, a 20-year naval architect and marine engineer who moved on to running ferry operations in Southern California, Hawaii and the East Coast.

Gurnee conceived of a high-speed ferry between cities in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. His dream: five boats moving at up to 50 knots, carrying 2,000 passengers and relieving traffic on the overburdened Interstate 5. But although the U.S. Department of Transportation backed the idea, local governments never rallied to help with the required federal subsidies, he said. He closed his firm.

“The technology exists to do it now,” he said, “but I suspect it will take $5-a-gallon gas to do it.”

In Long Beach, the successful 75-passenger Aqualink carries tourists between Alamitos Bay, the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific. The shuttle is run by Long Beach Transit, whose chief operating officer, Guy Heston, said he thinks water commuting has a future.

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“If you just step back and look at it -- here’s all this water. The entire Southern California coast. It sure makes sense to think about how we could take advantage of it and get people out of their cars,” he said.

A Long Beach-based shuttle could run to Orange County, San Pedro or even farther, he said, adding that the logical place to discuss such ideas would be at the MTA.

But no one at the MTA is thinking about ferries.

And although Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa frequently vows to make Los Angeles “the Venice of the 21st century,” a spokesman hastily clarified that he is speaking of economic prosperity -- not of water taxis pulling up to Venice Beach.

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Still, the WaterBus is thriving.

The county Department of Beaches and Harbors unveiled the service June 30, replacing the less popular Marina Coastlink Water Shuttle. With a $260,000 budget, a new name and a fare cut, WaterBus ridership topped 10,000 in the first six weeks of service, more than in its predecessor’s entire three-month run last year.

Just like bus riders everywhere, WaterBus patrons have plenty of suggestions: faster service, clearer signs, more seats, more direct routes and an easier way to buy tickets.

Alfredo Sosa Jr., 14, is too young to drive, but he would choose the WaterBus over a car for the same reasons that might attract car commuters: It is not the Blue Line or an MTA bus, but a bona fide boat.

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“It’s exciting,” Sosa said. “And I like the cool air.”


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