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Bay Area ferry board considers hovercraft proposal

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Craft could expand ferry service around the bay, but similar efforts have failed in the past

A hovercraft ferries passengers to the Isle of Wight in England.
A hovercraft ferries passengers to the Isle of Wight in England.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), the body that manages ferry service in the Bay Area, will consider a proposal to add a fleet of hovercrafts to its portfolio, potentially opening up commercial hovercraft service to locations inaccessible by traditional ferries.

Discover Hover—a non-profit dedicated to hovercraft technology—defines a hovercraft as ”an amphibious vehicle that is supported by a cushion of slightly pressurized air.”

Hovering at heights ranging from a few inches to a few feet, hovercrafts can cross any number of surfaces at high speed, including large bodies of water.

According to a bill introduced in British Parliament in 1968, “a Swedish philosopher and scientist named Swedenborg produced a hovercraft model in 1716 which was worked by pedals and a pump,” possibly the earliest example of the technology.

“Hovercraft service in England carries nearly one million passengers a year,” notes WETA vice chariman Jim Wunderman,

In a January letter addressed to members of the five-person WETA board, Wunderman urged the board to begin a feasibility study on the potential for Bay Area hovercraft service:

As you know, several areas of the Bay that offer significant potential ridership are hampered by the need to dredge and wake restrictions that slow down traditional ferry vessels.

Hovercraft may offer the opportunity to overcome these hurdles and open up new areas of the region that badly need congestion relief, as well as provide avenues for response in the event of a major public emergency.

[...] While not the solution for every setting, and certainly not required where standard ferries are able to operate, hovercraft do offer several compelling features worthy of consideration.

Wunderman says that hovercrafts are faster than boats (thanks to the lack of water resistance), comparable in price, and could service Bay Area cities (particularly in the South Bay) where regular ferry service isn’t possible.

The idea is not a new one. According to the San Jose Mercury News, a federally backed program instituted hovercraft service across the bay in the 1960s, but it was poorly received. This is also not the first time WETA has considered the technology; the authority conducted a feasibility study on the topic back in 2011.

That study concluded, in part:

Hovercraft [are] suitable for longer distance commutes, such as planned ferry services from Martinez and Antioch to Downtown San Francisco, where faster travel times would reduce headways and potentially allow for more frequent peak period service.

Hovercraft vessels are also capable of operating in a broad range of locations with fewer facilities and terminal infrastructure. [...]

However, hovercrafts are unable to access terminal facilities built and designed for conventional ferry vessels, such as those that facilities that currently exist in the Bay Area and are being planned and developed by WETA.

The inability of hovercraft vessels to provide service to most, if not all, existing and future San Francisco Bay terminals would significantly limit their utility in the event of a regional disaster.

Photo by Gail Heaton/Shutterstock

The report goes on to say that hovercrafts have a relatively low passenger capacity—fewer than 200 people at a time—and that “from a passenger standpoint, hovercraft vessels are more akin to airplanes than typical ferry boats,” meaning that there isn’t much room for cushy amenities that might attract riders.

That makes the economics of the notion shaky, since the areas where service is most likely have relatively small potential ridership compared to cities where ferry lines operate.

According to the 2011 study, hovercrafts could travel from San Francisco to Antioch in about 67 minutes, and from San Francisco to Hercules in approximately 37 minutes.