Treasure Island Ferry Dock Build Begins, But Whose Boats Will It Use?

Fall is just around the corner-the time when Treasure Island development authorities had been expected to clarify their expectations for a promised ferry service between the island and downtown San Francisco.


Published: October, 2019 

Fall is just around the corner—the time when Treasure Island development authorities had been expected to clarify their expectations for a promised ferry service between the island and downtown San Francisco. However, the situation remains muddled.  

At issue is how ferry operations will be financed and whether initial service will be provided by a public agency, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), or one of several private ferry boat operators on the Bay.  

In his most recent appearance before the WETA board of directors last April, transit planner Eric Cordoba said he expected a scheme to crystallize this summer for a toll on cars and trucks coming onto the island. The toll structure, in turn, would help provide the financial basis for a concrete proposal this fall regarding ferry service.  

But that timetable has “slipped,” island transportation planners say, adding that now they do not expect to have a plan until at least next spring. “Yes, our schedule has slipped, and we have not yet arrived at preliminary recommendations.” said Eric Young, a spokesman for the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.  

Public transit, including a ferry service, is required under plans for the giant development project on Treasure Island, which has had only a small population and minimal commercial activity since its naval station was decommissioned in 1996. When the entire buildout is completed in 2035, the project will have dramatically transformed the island—adding 8,000 new residential units, 500 hotel rooms, 300,000 square feet of office and commercial space and 300 acres of open space. The resident population is expected to hit 25,000, compared to fewer than 2,000 today.  

Along with ferries, transportation planners will encourage pedestrians and bicycles, add expanded bus service to the East Bay and San Francisco, and they even plan to test an autonomous shuttle bus to circumnavigate the adjoined Treasure and Yerba Buena islands.  

The first ferries had originally been scheduled to run from the island in 2023, but the island’s developers, believing ferry service will be enticing to potential new residents, have pushed the date up two years. Construction of the first 286 homes began earlier this year, and some are expected to be occupied by 2021.  

The absence of a visible plan for funding—and obtaining—ferry service has not deterred Treasure Island’s private developers from beginning construction of a new ferry terminal on the island’s western shore. Builders announced last week that they had broken ground on the new terminal, adding that they hope to begin “limited ferry service. . . as soon as 2021.”  

“With all of the momentum and excitement building around Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, we decided to accelerate the timetable for building a ferry terminal,” Chris Meany, co-manager of the development project, said in a prepared statement.  

But the delays in developing a specific proposal for ferry service raise questions that are anything but academic—for private operators, public agencies, labor unions and, at least nominally, taxpayers, all of whom have a stake in the outcome.  

A critical—and highly sensitive—issue is whether and how to implement the much-discussed toll on vehicles coming to the island. Tolls are among a quartet of revenue streams envisioned by planners, with the others being new parking meters on the island (there currently are none), transit fares paid by bus and ferry passengers, and a $30 million operating subsidy from developers (who are shelling out another $30 million for the ferry dock).  

But the tolls so far have gotten a chilly reception from San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, which must approve them. Some critics label the tolls a regressive form of taxation that would unfairly burden lower-paid employees commuting to the island, as well as lower-income island residents.  

In an attempt to alleviate those concerns, transportation planners have toyed with the possibility of exemptions or reduced tolls for certain classes of commuters. “Tolling is a critical source of funding for ferry service,” the transportation planning agency’s Young told us. “We continue our community outreach and technical work efforts, including an affordability program.” 

Several possible scenarios have emerged. These now include:

•  Tolls could be approved by the board in early spring, sufficient time for WETA to build a ferry or shift ferry resources and begin service in early 2021; or,

•  Tolls could be approved too late for WETA to meet the 2021 deadline for service. In this case, or in any case, developers might turn to a private operator—such as Prop SF (reportedly a favorite of the Treasure Island Development Authority) or Tideline. But maritime unions, which represent workers at WETA and Golden Gate Ferry, might object—forcefully—if regular ferry service were provided by a non-union company. The last thing developers would want is a picket line at the entrance to their new creation. Or,

•  Developers might turn to a unionized private operator, such as Blue & Gold or Red and White Fleet, to provide initial service. This is a remote possibility but it’s an intriguing one, because Red and White is slated to conduct three months of demonstration runs soon on its new hydrogen fuel cell ferry, Water-Go-Round. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling marketing vehicle than having the world’s first fuel-cell ferry providing commuter service. But Water-Go-Round’s owner, an East Coast maritime investment group called SW/TCH, isn’t saying what it will do with the boat after the demonstration period is over, other than that it will operate commercially within the Bay Area. Or,

•  Tolls could be rejected outright by the supervisors. Should this happen, the Treasure Island project is sufficiently important and developers behind the project sufficiently muscular and well connected that WETA might end up eating the cost of ferry traffic itself. The public ferry agency would be hard-pressed to find money for such an undertaking, especially if long-awaited funds from Regional Measure 3 remain tied up in a court battle, but unless the Metropolitan Transportation Commission wants to allocate more of its existing budget for ferry service, WETA may have to shift resources from other runs. 

At the moment, if Treasure Island’s developers and key transportation planners know which way they’re headed, they aren’t saying so for public consumption.  

WETA Executive Director Nina Rannells said she reached out to the transportation planning agency in mid-August to request an update and still hasn’t had a reply. “I don’t know what they have in mind,” she said.


Dan Rosenheim is a veteran Bay Area journalist who recently retired after 18 years as Vice President/News for KPIX-5 TV. Prior to going into broadcast, Rosenheim worked as a reporter, city editor and managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Dan and his wife, Cindy Salans Rosenheim, live in San Francisco.