Before the freeway system was built in the East Bay, the main highway that ran from San Jose to Martinez was known as Highway 21. It ran up through Mission San Jose, Sunol, Pleasanton, San Ramon, Danville, Alamo, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, Pacheco and terminated at the ferry landing in Martinez.

In those days we called it the Danville Highway, which then became Main Street in Walnut Creek, Contra Costa Boulevard in Pleasant Hill and Pacheco, and then Pacheco Boulevard in Martinez.

In order to get across the Carquinez Strait you boarded a ferry boat which took you to Benicia.

Up until the opening of the first span of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge in 1962, water transport of some kind had been operating between Martinez and Benicia since 1847.

When Interstate 680 and the bridge were completed, the state of California deeded the Highway 21 right of way to the cities and towns that it passed through. Downtown Martinez and the ferry landing were bypassed, and motorists buzzed across the bridge spanning the Carquinez Strait in only a few minutes. It was not long until ferry service was terminated once and for all.

In the decades that followed, most transportation improvements were to the roads and highways. Although the BART system began operations in the 1970s, other passenger rail systems were shut down and tracks were removed.

It was looking as if we were becoming almost exclusively dependent on the automobile, at least until the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and the collapse of a section of the Oakland span of the Bay Bridge. After the earth shook for those 15 seconds, all types of alternate forms of transportation became very important and appealing.

Ferry service between San Francisco and Oakland, which had ended decades before, was revived during the monthlong closure of the Bay Bridge as an alternative to the overcrowded BART. A ferry terminal was built in Alameda and the Army Corps of Engineers dredged a suitable ferry dock at the Berkeley Marina.

Out of this tragedy the Water Transit Authority (WTA) was born and then reborn as the Water Emergency Transit Authority (WETA). The system has now been expanded to include Vallejo, South San Francisco, Harbor Bay, Pier 41, AT&T Park and Angel Island. Plans are in the works for extensions to Redwood City, Richmond, Antioch, Hercules and Martinez.

WETA has been working on the extension to Martinez for the last several years. In its current capital budget, WETA continues to include $812,500 for Martinez Environmental/Design of which $212,000 has been spent with $550,500 for work yet to be completed.

The Contra Contra Transportation Authority (CCTA) is another transportation agency that has now started to evaluate water transit in Contra Costa County. The CCTA has undertaken its own study as part of determining its future financial support.

The study is reviewing proposed capital costs, operation costs, projected ridership and other elements of the proposed system. This study should be completed by next August.

Following the completion of the CCTA study, WETA intends to move forward on a memo of understanding (MOU) with the city of Martinez on the environmental and design work.

One of the challenges to bringing ferry service back to Martinez has been the projected ridership of the system. Originally, the numbers looked very strong and would support a terminal in Martinez. Subsequently, those numbers were revised and things did not look so good.

But since the BART strike things have radically changed. Over the four days of the BART shutdown, the Bay Ferry system carried 73,825 passengers, a 268 percent increase over average weekday volumes.

The Alameda/Oakland run showed the most dramatic gains with average increases of up to 500 percent. Vallejo (which is a similar route to what Martinez will be) saw increases of up to 60 percent.

During the recent Bay Bridge closure the numbers are not as high, but overall ridership was double normal weekday passenger load, with the most active being Vallejo.

These developments are positive for bringing back ferry service to Martinez and other Contra Costa communities. I believe that it signals that folks getting to work are looking for alternatives to the high costs of driving and parking.

Just like investing for your future retirement, it is smart to diversify and not put all of your assets in one place. We need to develop transportation alternatives to keep our population moving and economy growing, especially in times of crisis.

Rob Schroder is the mayor of Martinez. Email him at columns@bayareanewsgroup.com.