For more than four decades, Catalina Express vessels have ferried millions of people between the company’s namesake island and the mainland. The company weathered the coronavirus pandemic, only to come out the other side staring down a squall in the form of state regulations that could capsize it.
Prior to the pandemic, Catalina Express averaged about 500,000 roundtrip passengers for a total of 1 million crossings each year, President Greg Bombard said. Residents of Catalina Island account for about 14% of passenger traffic, he added, with the remainder being leisure travel.
In 2020, passenger volumes dropped 43%, according to Catalina Express data. But in 2021, the company saw almost a full recovery.
“People wanted to get out. They had been cooped up for a long time,” Bombard said. “We came back pretty strong—we weren’t quite at 2019 numbers but we were approaching them.”
Catalina Island was an attractive destination during the pandemic because of its various outdoor offerings, including hiking, kayaking and more, Bombard said. After initial shutdowns, the island was desperate for visitors, as tourism is its main economic driver.
Founded in 1981, Catalina Express now has an eight-ship fleet that is the primary mode of transportation between the island and the mainland—both for visitors and island residents who cross regularly for work. With ports in Long Beach, Dana Point and San Pedro, the company has transported over 33 million in its 41-year history.
As air regulations have become more stringent through the years, Catalina Express has upgraded its engines to reduce emissions accordingly, Bombard said. Marine diesel engines are categorized by tier: Tier 1 being the oldest and dirtiest, and Tier 4 being the newest and cleanest.
In 2009, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) approved a regulation that required Catalina Express to update its fleet again to cleaner Tier 3 engines, a process the company began five years ago. Upgrading an engine to Tier 3 requires modifying the existing engine with more modern parts and costs about $4 million per vessel, Bombard said.
Four of the company’s ships have already been upgraded to Tier 3 and a fifth is currently in San Diego undergoing the same transition, expected to be completed in late April or early May, Bombard said. Two more ships are slated to be upgraded this year, he added.
This spring, however, the CARB is expected to vote on a proposed amendment to the regulation that would require Catalina Express to further update its ships to Tier 4—a much costlier endeavor, according to Bombard. A Tier 3 engine cannot simply be upgraded, he explained. Rather an entirely new, much larger and heavier engine is required.
“We would lose about 56% of our passenger complement because it would add so much weight to the vessel,” Bombard said. “It has structural design limits: if you add weight to a vessel, you’ve got to take it off some other way.”
For about $9 million each, Bombard said Catalina Express vessels could be upgraded with Tier 4 engines but the reduced capacity would effectively increase the company’s carbon footprint per passenger. The other option, he said, is building an entirely new fleet to the tune of $20 million per ship, which is not possible without financial assistance from the state and federal governments.
Despite the fact that the proposed regulation has not been approved, the company already is actively engaging with the CARB and seeking grant funding, Bombard said. The company has started a change.org petition urging the board to assist for the sake of the island and its economy.
Unfortunately, most state and federal funding is for the transition to zero-emission technology, Bombard said. The company is willing to transition to an electric- or hydrogen-fueled fleet, he said, but the technology simply does not exist for ships with similar capacity and range required for Catalina Express.
Zero-emission ferries are being tested in San Francisco, Bombard said, but they travel at half the speed and with seating for only 70 passengers compared to his vessels’ capacity of just under 400.
If the proposal passes and Catalina Express does not receive grants to offset costs, Bombard said it could force the company out of business. And without Catalina Express, the island’s economy would be devastated.
“The zealous pursuit of good goals cannot destroy the livelihoods and lives of the people they are intended to protect,” Catalina Mayor Anni Marshall wrote in a November 2021 opinion piece. While the goals are admirable, Marshall said, the proposed regulation must be “rejected or significantly modified,” lest it “kill off our hospitality-based economy.”
The island economy relies on Catalina Express and other vessels subject to the proposed regulation for the transport of visitors and goods to the island. The pandemic already took its toll on the island economically, Marshall said, noting that the harbor fund and associated reserves, which pay for maintenance and city-funded services along the waterfront, already have been depleted.
While the regulation would financially impact mainland-based operations such as fishing boats, whale watching businesses and more, it would cause “disproportionate harm and suffering” to the island’s nearly 4,100 residents and dozens of businesses, Marshall said.
“Imagine the uproar if transportation into and out of any other California city was halved and residents couldn’t easily get to medical appointments, jobs, or shopping for necessities,” Marshall wrote.
Bombard, for his part, said he does not believe the state would allow Catalina Express’s critical service to fall by the wayside.
“We try to look at the positive side of it because the negative side doesn’t take us anywhere except out of business,” Bombard said. “And I don’t believe the state’s looking to do that.”