Despite contract dispute, it’s full speed ahead
Capt. Maggie McDonogh is mad as hell, and she wants everybody to know about it. She is the owner and operator of the tiny Angel Island Tiburon Ferry Co., and she is in the middle of a dispute that has been going on for 10 years now with the California State Parks system.
Sometime this fall, McDonogh’s company may well lose the contract it has held for close to 60 years to provide ferry service between Tiburon and Angel Island State Park. The dispute is over a contract, and McDonogh says the terms the state Department of Parks and Recreation is offering are so tough a small company like hers wouldn’t be able to compete.
“They are trying to put me out of business,” she said.
Under the law, the concession contracts at state parks — to provide services like transportation, food and tours — must be put out to bid. The process is called request for proposal, or RFP, in government talk. The state is offering a 20-year, nonexclusive contract for the TiburonAngel Island service. A different run, between San Francisco and Angel Island, operated by the much larger Blue & Gold Fleet, is under a separate contract.
McDonogh’s mile-long run across Raccoon Strait takes only 15 minutes, but it is the bread and butter of her firm. “My greatgrandfather came to Tiburon with the railroad,” McDonogh said. That would have been in 1884. The McDonoghs ran a boardinghouse and a small boat business. Tiburon and the water were their life.
“This was a blue-collar town then, a railroad town with tough bars all along Main Street,” McDonogh said.
The last train left Tiburon 51 years ago, and now it’s an affluent place. The average home is valued at $1.8 million, the average yearly family income is $149,510, and Main Street is squeaky clean.
But the McDonoghs are still mainstays of the town, the kind who seem to know everybody. Besides the Angel Island ferry, the company offers sunset cruises along the Marin shore, whale watching beyond the Golden Gate and scenic tours.
“We are a locally owned, fifth-generation family business,” McDonogh said. She figures that should entitle the company to special consideration.
She has a point. Capt. Maggie herself is often at the helm of one of the company’s three boats. Or the skipper might be her 23-year-old son, Sam McDonogh III, named after his great-greatgrandfather. “I grew up on boats,” Sam said.
The atmosphere on board is hardly corporate. Maggie seems to know many of the passengers on a first-name basis, and on one trip the other day, passengers offered her some leftover picnic eats and chocolate cake.
“People love to go back and forth to Angel Island, which is so very interesting,” McDonogh said. “We make people happy for a living. And this,” she said, waving her arms around the wheelhouse of the ferryboat Angel Island, “this is my office.”
Almost all the passengers are day-trippers to the island for a picnic or a hike. Between 55,000 and 70,000 ride from Tiburon every year on McDonogh’s boats. But some of the passengers are park staff, or some of the 30 or so people who live on Angel Island full time.
If McDonogh loses the contract, things will be a bit different. Families don’t like change, but change is in the air.
The trouble began when the state offered a contract with what Maggie McDonogh considered onerous conditions and impossible demands. Among the conditions was a stipulation that the ferry operator had to maintain a dock on Angel Island and build a handicapped-accessible dock for state park staff in Tiburon, a project that McDonogh says would cost $1.8 million.
The McDonoghs have been feuding with the state for a decade over the contract terms. “This is not my first rodeo with the state parks,” McDonogh said. When a new RFP was offered this year, she refused to bid on it.
But Blue & Gold Fleet did after taking what the company’s president, Patrick Murphy, called “a hard look” at the contract. Blue & Gold is the only bidder for the Angel Island-Tiburon service.
McDonogh isn’t giving up without a fight. The Angel Island Tiburon Ferry Co. has a petition going, asking that the state reconsider its bid process. She has lined up political support, from the mayor of Tiburon to the local legislative delegation in Sacramento. She is also planning a media blitz. It’s Capt. Maggie against the state.
It is a one-sided battle. The state Department of Parks and Recreation refuses to fight. “It is unknown at this time how long the review process will last or its outcome,” spokeswoman Gloria Sandoval said in an email.
For her part, McDonogh says she’ll continue to operate the ferry service, contract or no contract.
“I’m still going,” she said, “and we will still be going.”
Capt. Maggie McDonogh, who is battling the state, ferries passengers to Angel Island from Tiburon.
Passengers board a ferry at the Tiburon dock, bound for Angel Island. The McDonogh family has had a state ferry contract for nearly 60 years.