2011-03 "S.F. Considers Barges for Waste Transportation; Proposals to use barges on San Francisco Bay to move regional cargo—thereby getting trucks off the road and reducing greenhouse gas emissions—are not new, but may soon get a boost from an unlikely source: San Francisco’s garbage contracts." from "Bay Crossings" newspaper
Proposals to use barges on San Francisco Bay to move regional cargo—thereby getting trucks off the road and reducing greenhouse gas emissions—are not new, but may soon get a boost from an unlikely source: San Francisco’s garbage contracts.
For years, Bay Area ports, environmental organizations and planning agencies have all talked about a “marine highway” to move freight across the region. This talk has not yet materialized into concrete projects. But at a hearing of the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee held on February 9, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi quizzed officials from the Department of the Environment about the possibility of using barges to transfer garbage out of the City. Currently, the refuse is taken to a transfer plant in San Francisco for sorting, and then sent on to an Altamont landfill by truck.
“Not to evaluate the merits of a barge pilot project would be a missed opportunity for San Francisco,” Mirkarimi told Bay Crossings. “The port is an underutilized asset that is poised to help the city answer important questions relative to how we dispose of our garbage—using barges as a pilot project would likely instruct us as to how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while stimulating a maritime port use not seen in years.”
The February hearing was held to consider the awarding of the City’s landfill-disposal contract, currently held by Waste Management, to Recology. Recology (and its predecessors) has long been the City’s sole garbage collector, having acquired through purchase and consolidation all 97 permits in existence to collect garbage and transport it through the City’s streets. The landfill-disposal contract, distinct from the collection contract, governs what happens to the garbage once it is collected from homes and businesses in San Francisco. If it receives the contract, Recology plans to dispose of the City’s waste by train to their Yuba County landfill facility, effectively taking trucks off the road.
The discussion about transporting the City’s refuse by barge is part of a larger effort by Mirkarimi, Supervisor David Campos and others to mandate competitive bidding for the City’s refuse contracts. At the meeting, the committee put Recology’s contract award on hold for two months to give time for further consideration.
The baby steps taken at the meeting do not mean that a barge project will become a reality. “The notion of reactivating our port to include a new maritime use for barge delivery will not happen unless the will is there at city hall to change directions,” Mirkarimi said. Still, regional planners are enthusiastic about anything that can reduce traffic, and the San Francisco garbage contract could provide the needed spark.
Insiders say a barge plan could act as a “market maker” that would demonstrate the possibilities of barge cargo and embolden private enterprise to follow suit with more of the same, similar to San Francisco’s pioneering use of electric and alternative-fuel vehicles. These barges would be loaded with containerized garbage that would be transported across the Bay, a far cry from the infamous New York City garbage barges of decades past.
One critical question is whether barges can move San Francisco’s garbage as well as trucks and trains can. Rich Smith, general manager of Westar Marine Services, said they can. “The laws of physics tell us that weight and volume can be moved over water using barges at a fraction the cost of trucks clogging the roads,” Smith said. “A certain amount of infrastructure work is needed for loading and offloading, but much of that already exists and what is needed beyond that will be paid off over years and years of service. And the environmental benefits are dramatic: ton-per-ton, barges emit 73 percent less greenhouse gas than trucks, and traffic on the freeways and bridges is greatly reduced too.”
Environmentalists are tentatively on board the barge plan as well. Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a respected regional planning organization, said, “We are following with interest proposals to move San Francisco’s garbage by barge. The devil is always in the details, but if it results in getting trucks off one of the most congested roads in the country and improves air quality, then it deserves serious consideration.”
Recology, as of this writing, remains decidedly cautious of the proposal due to unknown costs and environmental issues. Adam Alberti, a spokesperson for the company, said that the “impacts are unknown.” Sources, however, tell Bay Crossings that Recology may be open to including a pilot project to test using barges.
“Recology has a good record with San Francisco. I like how they’ve partnered with me and my colleagues on myriad environmental initiatives,” Mirkarimi said. “And yet, we have an obligation to pursue and innovate to find the best waste hauling proposal for our consumers—excluding any assessment of alternative approaches like the barge pilot is unwise.”
Ultimately, it is unlikely that Recology, a company with deep roots in the San Francisco community and a finely tuned political sensitivity, will not win the contract. Yet with an unusual coalition of environmental organizations, transit advocates, unionists and the waterfront community coalescing behind it, the idea of moving garbage by barge looks to have a chance of coming to pass.
Nor do the unions seem to present a stumbling block as they have in the past. A previous barge proposal—to transport overnight packages by ferry from around the region to Oakland Airport, the Bay Area’s air-cargo center—was jettisoned by the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has jurisdiction over many ferry and barge crews. Overnight express companies, not all unionized, could not come to terms with the union on various aspects of the plan.
But the ILWU has recently proven more flexible on the topic of refuse barges. According to Marina Secchitano of the ILWU Marine Division, “The ILWU welcomes the prospect of moving garbage out of San Francisco by barge. Our members are enthusiastic about this environmentally responsible idea that will reanimate San Francisco’s working waterfront while putting our members to work,” Secchitano said. “We believe the project will become a national model for using inland waterways to improve traffic, clean the air and cut down on oil use. Our membership stands ready, willing and able to make it happen in a way that works for everyone.”
The Port of San Francisco’s beleaguered working waterfront is unambiguously enthusiastic. Roiled by decades of trials and tribulations and reduced to a shadow of its former self, denizens are crossings their fingers that a revival may be at hand.