Volume 8, Issue 44  |  June 2, 2023Subscribe

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Unexpected chance meeting just might lead to solution for Balboa Island Ferry’s mandate


Nothing quite galvanizes Newport Beach residents as when a relatively unknown state government agency tries to force an unfunded mandate on a beloved and historically significant local attraction thereby threatening its existence.

And so it is with the Balboa Island Ferry, whose future is in jeopardy due to the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) requirement that the ferry convert their diesel engines to all electric by the end of next year.

I first wrote about this a couple of weeks ago and the response has been loud and clear. Let’s just say that the citizens of Newport Beach are not pleased.

It’s no secret that California has been pushing clean energy for some time now. Everything from leaf blowers to trucks hauling goods out of the ports are being required to redesign their motors or engines to something nonpolluting, perhaps either hydrogen or electric.

Unexpected chance meeting Gary Sherwin

Click on photo for a larger image

Photos courtesy of Visit Newport Beach

Gary Sherwin

In the ferry’s case, the challenge is not the interest in clean energy. It’s the fact that the technology for the ferry to make such a conversion simply doesn’t exist right now. It’s like telling everyone they must move to Mars next summer and there isn’t a rocket ship to even take you there.

It’s one of those mandates that perhaps could have been surgically implemented across industries, but instead was broadly applied in the aspirational goal of making California a truly clean energy state.

While weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is a nice idea, the problem is not only emerging technology but the price tag. For the ferry, putting an electric engine in what are essentially old barges doesn’t come cheap. To convert three ferries, assuming it can be done in the future, would cost $4.5 million on a business that generates $2 million in a very good year.

And I was reminded by David Beek from Marine Island Fuel whose family runs the ferry, installing potentially hot burning electric batteries in old wooden barges is going to need the approval of the Coast Guard which still may not sign off due to safety issues.

For CARB, this was one of those well-intended programs with unintended outcomes. But since my first column, a few notable things have occurred. 

During a Visit California mission to Tokyo a few weeks ago, which was led by Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis and focused on tourism, agriculture and clean energy partnerships with Japan, I was surprised to find the actual Chairperson of CARB, Liane Randolph, literally standing next to me during introductions.

It was a crazy coincidence. Randolph was there as part of the state delegation and to participate in an alternative energy panel. Who would have thought it took a trip to Japan to help resolve the ferry problem?

Visit California President and CEO Caroline Beteta, who leads the state’s massive tourism marketing efforts, has also taken up the cause. Together, we had a brief meeting with Chairperson Randolph to discuss the issue. We both found her to be kind and thoughtful. She gave me her card and suggested that I contact her once we returned home, which I did. She responded immediately and asked a couple more questions before passing the issue along to her staff.

Additionally, Assemblywoman Diane Dixon (R-Newport Beach) has been hard at work on the issue as well. Reached earlier this week in Sacramento, she said she is willing to introduce spot legislation later this year if an agreement with CARB doesn’t materialize. She has reached out to CARB staff and is hopeful that Governor Newsom’s staff will also get involved with the issue.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our little ferry could be the impetus for some bipartisan cooperation in Sacramento?

Unexpected chance meeting ferry

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Balboa Island Ferry

Additionally, there has been considerable media interest in the issue which has energized the community. It seems like no one wants to look at the prospect of the ferry going away.

The Newport Beach City Council is also getting involved and is preparing a letter to state officials urging a resolution to protect the treasured local attraction, according to Councilman Joe Stapleton.

The end goal here is pretty simple. As was explained to Chairperson Randolph, they need to give the ferry more time to comply with the mandate. If the auto industry was given a 2035 deadline to install electric engines, why not extend that same requirement to the ferry? By that time, not only can an engineering solution be devised but battery technology can evolve to make it more affordable for the ferry to make the conversion. And although it hasn’t been asked for, how about a little financial relief to make all of this happen?

Along those lines, I learned earlier this week that CARB gave the San Francisco Ferry a $3 million grant to convert their engines to new hydrogen fuel cell technology. In their case, they have 70-foot catamarans and operate 16 vessels to cities including Oakland. These aluminum ferries can transport up to 75 passengers at a top speed of 15 knots.

These new zero-emissions ferries will be undergoing trials and expect to start carrying passengers later this year. The boats will have enough hydrogen storage capacity for two days of normal operation.

Also, the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry, which transports thousands of visitors annually from Tiburon to the state park on the island, announced it is converting their engines to electric sometime next year.

That’s great news for them. However, our ferries are not sleek large aluminum vessels. As Beek has said many times before, these are barges which also carry vehicles, unlike some of the other ferries, and is a different beast altogether.

Ferry owner, and David’s dad, Seymour Beek, whose family has operated the attraction since it was started in 1919, is hopeful that a solution can be found and is committed to keeping it open as a valued community asset assuming it makes financial sense.

So, can Sacramento work out a deal that will keep the ferry afloat? I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t believe CARB would like to see our beloved ferry end its 104-year-old run. And, as was pointed out to Chairperson Randolph, the elimination of the ferry would actually INCREASE pollutants since it would add more cars to the peninsula and Balboa Island which is exactly what the mandate is trying to address.

The ball is now in CARB’s court and they know our concerns. Let’s hope they don’t drop it.

Gary Sherwin is President & CEO of Visit Newport Beach and Newport Beach & Company.

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