The Balboa Ferry has been a staple of Newport Beach since it opened in 1919, but it now faces the possibility of shutting down as state regulators ask them to replace all their engines with newer, cleaner models.
Seymour Beek, the president of the ferry, says the upgrade costs would sink the business, while staff from the California Air Resources Board insist there are multiple grants and opportunities available if they just reach out to take advantage of them.
“The amount of air pollution we produce is miniscule, we made all those arguments and CARB didn’t listen,” Beek said in an interview. “We still have hopes that they will budge.”
Beek worked as a deckhand on the boats when he was in high school and college when his father ran the company, and came back to run the business after their general manager had a stroke in 1990.
He says that while he wants to comply with the state’s mandates for cleaner engines and has offered to get cleaner diesel engines, a complete move to zero emissions is not affordable.
“You’re talking about a whole new system,” Beek said. “What we’d like to do is to continue to use diesel power and not have to go electric, we would happily accept the idea of going to a cleaner version of the engine.”
It’s an idea that’s picked up a lot of support from the community, with over 24,000 signatures supporting a petition to leave the ferry as it is on change.org.
Currently, all three of the Balboa ferries operate on diesel engines, which altogether eat up around 30 gallons of diesel fuel a day, Beek said.
The state is requiring all short-run ferry businesses in the state to replace their engines with zero emission models by 2025, and argue that the technology is readily available.
“The reason that short-run ferries were put first in this transition is the technology is available now to make the shift,” said Lys Mendez, the air resources board’s communicators director in an interview.
Mendez also pointed out that the final date to improve the ferries could be pushed back beyond 2025 if companies can show they’re in the process of purchasing the equipment or that they’re staggering the installation of new engines on the ferries to save money.
“They have more than two years as of now,” Mendez said. “They have the opportunity to get more time, that’s built into the rulemaking. Extensions are a part of the process.”
It remains unclear exactly how much it will cost to upgrade the ferries: Beek says their early estimates put the cost at around $5 million for the new engines, batteries and new infrastructure to charge the boats in the harbor.
Mendez declined to comment on the costs to transition, saying they needed more data from the ferry company to answer that question.
But the Balboa Ferry doesn’t have much cash on hand.
According to Beek, while the ferry makes a total income of around $2 million a year, after paying for all their expenses, the ferry’s total profit comes out to around $120,000.
“It’s never been a primary source of income to anyone in my family, it’s a thing on the side that sort of took care of itself,” Beek said. “From a personal financial standpoint, and this is true, it doesn’t make a lot of difference.”
“But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to keep it going – we do want to keep it going.”
Mendez said that while the costs might be high, they’re encouraging the ferry to apply for grants and other available funds that could help bridge the gap.
“The funding is first come first serve,” she said. “We have flagged several funding programs that are available, and they haven’t applied yet.”
Beek argues that it’s almost impossible to apply for those grants without paying someone who’s familiar with the grant application process, and says he also doesn’t have the money to hire lobbyists that can argue his case before the agency.
“In order to get these grants that are supposedly readily available, we’d have to hire a specialist to do the application,” Beek said. “I’ve got a nephew who’s been very helpful in looking into all this grant funding, he’s a knowledgeable business guy and he’s been our point contact.”
The issue could ultimately be decided by the state legislature, where Assemblywoman Diane Dixon says she plans to introduce new laws that would protect the Balboa Ferry or give them more time to upgrade their equipment.
“My conversations with CARB staff … have been to seek an exemption to 2035, which many other types of transportation vehicles as well as vessels have been given,” Dixon said in an interview last month. “There are lots of challenges that can be easily remedied provided there’s an extension.”
Mendez declined to comment on the legislation, citing the fact that it had yet to be created, but encouraged the ferry’s operators to consider a partnership with the city of Newport Beach to get more funding from grants.
“That makes them eligible for a pot of funding, and a partnership with an entity like the city helps offset some of the administrative costs,” Mendez said. “The program would compensate the city…for their assistance.”
While Beek says he’s working hard to figure out what the future of the ferry looks like, the new rules from the state are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in Newport Beach.
“This is not a dirty air location…the whole thing in my opinion is kind of silly,” Beek said. “I don’t care where the money comes from, I don’t think it ought to be wasted on trying to eliminate 30 gallons of pollution a day. That’s crazy.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc,org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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