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Avalon Ferry Proposal Hits Troubled Water

May 17, 1987|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

Plans to launch high-speed ferryboat services from Redondo Beach and San Diego to Santa Catalina Island this summer have apparently foundered.

Catalina Channel Express, which offers service from San Pedro to the island, still has not received permission from the state Public Utilities Commission for the proposed run out of King Harbor. A company spokesman said he does not expect a decision until late July.

Greg Bombard, vice president and general manager of Catalina Express, said that even if approval is granted in July, it would take at least another 30 days before service could begin. An August inauguration, Bombard said, would be too late to take advantage of summer crowds, and his firm is now considering a June, 1988, start.

Oldest Carrier

Terry Koenig, general manager of Catalina Cruises, the oldest and largest carrier that crosses the channel from Long Beach and San Pedro to Catalina, said that his company's plans to start service out of San Diego have also been scrapped for this year because a new boat could not be built on time. Koenig said he also plans to start service next June.

California Cruisin', a new company that had also announced ferryboat service between San Diego and Catalina Island, has had financial problems and its owners are negotiating to sell the company.

However, Robert Giersdorf, one of the potential buyers, said late last week that negotiations were not going well.

An estimated 900,000 to 1 million people visit Catalina each year, and most of them get there by boat.

That no new ferry services will begin this year has disappointed officials in Redondo Beach, San Diego and Catalina, but they are optimistic about expanded service next year.

"It's a shame," said Ernie O'Dell, executive director of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce. "We all would have liked to have seen it happen this year. But it makes more sense business-wise to wait and start next year."

Don Harrison, executive director of the San Diego Cruise Industry Consortium, has been working to get service from his city to Catalina since 1984.

Despite the setbacks, Harrison said, "We certainly are not giving up on the thought of having some kind of service to Catalina this summer."

"Avalon is such an attraction that many people want to go. As it is now, you have to make such a long drive (to Long Beach or Newport Beach where Catalina Passenger Service runs a ferry) and then take a long boat ride just to get to Catalina from San Diego. I think it's going to be exciting whenever we get the service started."

Marian Post, executive director of the Catalina Chamber of Commerce, said she was disappointed that the new service would not begin this year, but added that she is hopeful about next year.

Post said the number of visitors to Catalina had increased this year over the same period last year, primarily because of the early warm weather and because Easter vacation extended over three weeks in April.

Operators Dismayed

Ferryboat operators also expressed dismay over not being able to start their new runs this summer.

That no decision has been made on a Redondo Beach service is a result of bad luck. The administrative law judge hearing the Catalina Express application suffered a heart attack recently, delaying the process an additional three months.

Bombard said starting the service in the fall would be difficult since the bulk of the business comes between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

"Rather than just let the boat sit tied to the dock, we're now looking at 1988," he said.

Bombard had planned to shift one of the four boats based at San Pedro to Redondo Beach. Three of the boats carry 149 passengers and the other carries 60. All have airplane-style seating and service, Bombard said, adding that demand would determine which is used in Redondo Beach. The company had proposed a $30 round-trip fare for the 110-minute ride from Redondo Beach to Catalina.

Trouble Getting Boat

The round-trip fare from San Pedro is $25 and takes 90 minutes one way.

Koenig of Catalina Cruises said he decided to delay service for a year because he was having trouble finding a boat builder who could design a boat that could make the 70-mile trip from San Diego to Catalina in under three hours.

He said he has now found a builder and expects to sign a contract within the next 30 days. Koenig said the boat would carry 400 passengers for a proposed $40 round-trip fare.

The company operates one 150-passenger and five 700-passenger vessels out of San Pedro and Long Beach and the ride takes two hours. The summer one-way fare from either location is $10.95, but the company has asked the PUC for a $1 increase. The company cites increasing costs and a declining share of the market.

Koenig said the company could have begun service out of San Diego this summer with a slower boat, but he feared a 3 1/2- to 4-hour boat ride was too long.

"We were afraid that people wouldn't like such a long ride," Koenig said, "and that that would take us out of the market forever.

"There will be people who will be disappointed that we are not starting this summer; we're disappointed. But if we provide good service when we get started, I don't think we'll have any problems attracting people."

Officials at California Cruisin' have shut down operations and could not be reached for comment. However, sources familiar with the company said problems began when the vessel the company had intended to use did not meet Coast Guard fire standards for the proposed passenger capacity. Problems were further complicated--and more money was spent--to lease and refurbish another boat.

"I think they were under-financed to begin with," said one source who asked not to be identified.

Giersdorf, the man negotiating to purchase California Cruisin', said talks were not going well. He said, however, if he does not buy the company, he hopes to start his own service out of San Diego, perhaps as early as next summer.

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