As the Bay Area braces for one million more residents by 2020, transportation officials are hoping a portion of them will commute across the Bay by ferry.

Under a regional transit plan in its early stages, the ports of South San Francisco, Redwood City, Hercules, Richmond, Berkeley, Alameda, Treasure Island and Antioch/Martinez all could become commuter hubs for ferry service to San Francisco.

At a meeting of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission on Thursday, officials approved a $20,000 contract to consult with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission on the water transit project, in the works since 1999.

The $500 million project, which would also involve erecting concentrated housing near many of the new transit hubs, is further along in some cities than others. South San Francisco's Oyster Point Marina is expected to begin ferry service to Oakland in 2008, and Berkeley's service to San Francisco could start as early as 2009, said Steve Castleberry, head of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority.

Those projects are fully funded, but others, such as the one in Redwood City, are still casting about for money to build a ferry station, buy boats, and pay for gas and sailors to operate them. Funding for the ferry initiative comes from a variety of federal, state, and local sources.

About 10,000 Bay Area residents use existing ferry service for their daily commute, said Castleberry. In 20 years, the Transit Authority is hoping to increase that number to 30,000. It would still be a fraction of the percentage of people who rely on their cars to get to work, but officials believe it will make a big difference.

"As our highways get more congested, we need to look for alternatives that help people get from one side of the Bay to another," said MTC planning director Doug Kimsey. "It's very expensive to expand our bridges. Ferries have been getting more popular as time goes on."

According to job forecasts by the Association of Bay Area Governments, around 100,000 new jobs will open in San Francisco in the coming decades, but most of them will be filled by people living in the East, South and North Bay.

Cities seeking regional funding from the MTC for their particular ferry project are being encouraged to build housing in the immediate area, for a tentative total of 750 housing units throughout the Bay. This will create customers for the ferry service and help avoid sprawl, said Kimsey.

It's one piece of the MTC's $13 billion regional transit expansion program, which involves expanding BART to San Jose and East Contra Costa County, electrifying Caltrain, adding bus service in Alameda County, and completing the San Francisco Municipal Railway line into the downtown area. Neighborhoods around the new South Bay BART stations are projected to attract 3,800 new residents, said Kimsey.

Castleberry said Richmond, Hercules, Martinez and Treasure Island were all already planning housing projects near the water. Other places, like South San Francisco and Berkeley, have designated open space along their marinas and were not expected to build houses there.

Redwood City is looking into the possibility of creating a light-rail service that would run from its downtown area, along Seaport Boulevard and out to the ferry station to cut down on cars, said city planner Tom Passanisi.

From an environmental standpoint, initial studies indicated that none of the cities proposed for ferry service would have to fill the Bay to accommodate the boats, said Castleberry.

He said the new boats would conform to an emissions standard 10 times cleaner than existing ferries on the Bay, but are still expected to emit nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air which would settle in the Bay. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission will scrutinize future environmental studies to identify any significant air pollution concerns or threats to wetlands or marine life.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at (650) 348-4340 or at jscott@angnewspapers.com.