Treasure Island Ferry: The Devil Is in the Details

Facing an accelerated deadline for the start of Treasure Island ferry service, transit planners are hastening to hammer out a scheme for regular ferry runs between the island and San Francisco's Ferry Building.

Photo by Joel Williams


Published: March, 2019


Facing an accelerated deadline for the start of Treasure Island ferry service, transit planners are hastening to hammer out a scheme for regular ferry runs between the island and San Francisco’s Ferry Building.


Originally planned to begin in 2023, ferry traffic from the island is now due to start in 2021, which is when the first units of a giant new housing and commercial development will be ready for occupancy.


But there is still no agreement on fundamental aspects of the plan, including where and how boats will be sourced and who will operate the service. A Treasure Island dock for the ferry boats has also yet to be built, and San Francisco supervisors have so far balked at a proposal to charge tolls for car travel between the island and San Francisco—tolls that could help pay for public transit and incentivize its use.


“We are evaluating alternatives for vessels and service providers,” said Eric Young, senior communications officer for the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), which is developing a transit plan.


The planned first phase of ferry service in 2021 calls for a 70-passenger vessel to operate at 30-minute intervals during peak hours on weekdays. Fares are expected to be between $4 and $6. As development on the island proceeds, ferry traffic is slated to grow. Full weekend and weekday service is planned to start in 2026, Young said, and at some point larger vessels (150 to 250 passengers) will be providing service every 15 minutes.


Almost everyone involved agrees that the most likely scenario would eventually have Treasure Island ferry boats operated by the Water Emergency Transit Authority (WETA), the largest Bay Area ferry operator and one that already provides service between San Francisco, South San Francisco and the East Bay.


But right now, WETA doesn’t appear to have extra ferry capacity for the rush-hour transit line envisioned for Treasure Island, and the agency’s ability to add new boats has been crimped by a lawsuit that has tied up badly needed new capital, at least temporarily.


That means, as Young suggested, that planners have considered turning to the private sector, at least to get things started. “Options for initial service include the use of private operators,” Young said. “We will have more information on those topics by late spring or early summer.”


“We are trying to create transit service to meet the initial demand, but we are revenue constrained,” James Cordoba, deputy director for capital projects for the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency (TIMMA), recently told WETA board members at a hearing that occasionally turned testy. Cordoba said that TIMMA would like to strike a deal with WETA, but “it has to be something that works for us.”


“And the alternative is to choose another operator?” asked WETA board member Nick Josefowitz.


“That would be the alternative,” said Cordoba. “There have been some discussions with private service providers.”


“It has been represented to us that developers would provide these boats. I am really disappointed,” said WETA board member Anthony Intintoli, Jr.


“I am going to be blunt,” said WETA Chair Jody Breckenridge. “A little over two years ago, we got a briefing. You told us that vessels were part of your package.”


WETA staff and directors expressed frustration on a number of topics, but nevertheless seemed determined to find the money for ferries. “Their dates and plans keep evolving,” said WETA Executive Director Nina Rannells, choosing her words carefully. “But at least now we have a clear priority. We’ll work on finding the money and providing the vessel.”


“I am adamantly opposed to private ferry service on the bay at this point,” said WETA board member Jeff DelBono. “I would like to see us operate the service.”


“If it’s public transportation, we should be the player,” said Breckenridge.


To that end, the board moved toward exploring several avenues. One option, voiced by board Vice Chair Jim Wunderman, was to seek funding from the San Francisco transit agency—revenue constrained or not.


“If we were led to believe there was funding, it’s on the City of San Francisco to make good on it,” Wunderman said. “The City buys a lot of buses and light rail. In the scale of things, this ferry is not a lot of money, and this is a very important project.”


Noting that an electric hybrid vessel could be used to start water transit from Treasure Island, Wunderman also said the California Air Resources Board might provide assistance through its cap-and-trade program.


“I don’t think the game is over,” Wunderman said. “We could look at this as an opportunity.” But, as Wunderman also noted, “the clock is kind of ticking on this.”


And indeed it is. With a dearth of idle ferry boats available for leasing and a two-year window typically needed to design, build, deliver and test a new ferry boat, WETA will need to move quickly to meet TIMMA’s 2021 deadline.


“Hopefully, we can find new money,” said Rannells. “Or it just means there is something else we wanted that won’t get done.”


Although ground has yet to be broken on the new Treasure Island ferry terminal, it is the least problematic part of the equation. Work is expected to start this summer. A site has long been agreed upon—across the road from the Administration Building, facing downtown San Francisco on the island’s southwest side. The estimated $30 million cost of the terminal and breakwaters will be borne by the Treasure Island developers.


“We’ll have a dock in time,” said one insider. “But whose ferries use that dock remains very much up in the air.”

  Indeed, ferry service is only one part of a broad public transit plan for Treasure Island that also includes:


A new stop at San Francisco’s Civic Center by Muni’s 25 bus line, in addition to the current run between the island and the Transbay Terminal;

A new AC Transit line providing, for the first time in recent history, bus service between Treasure Island and Oakland;

A shuttle bus service that, much like those already in existence at the Presidio and in Emeryville, will provide public transportation between points on the island.


Expanded public transit, planners say, is needed to service the island’s growing community of residents and employees.  When completed by 2035, the Treasure Island development project will have added 8,000 new residential units, 500 hotel rooms, and 300,000 square feet of office and commercial space. The population of island dwellers is expected to hit 25,000, compared to fewer than 2,000 today.


That huge influx of business and residents threatens to create a traffic nightmare on the Bay Bridge—a key reason why transit alternatives are viewed as a necessity. But to be economically viable, public transit needs to be used at near-capacity levels much of the time, and tolls on autos are viewed as a key way to “encourage” such use.


Cordoba said builders expect to complete 500 residential units a year on Treasure Island, with 2,500 units in place by 2026. That, he said, is the “critical mass for more robust transit,” which is why planners expect to go to full weekend and weekday service then.


Ultimately, ferry and other transit services, including expanded Muni and new AC Transit service, are expected to be paid for by a quartet of revenue streams: Tolls on vehicles driving onto the island (though these have yet to be approved by S.F. supervisors, and the toll amount remains unclear); parking meters that are to be introduced throughout the island, where currently there are none; transit fares paid by bus and ferry passengers; and a $30 million operating subsidy from developers.


But in the first five years starting in 2021, with fewer units available, there won’t be enough people on the island to generate sufficient revenue, whether through tolls, parking or transit fees. And the developers’ $30 million contribution to the transit operating budget has to be divided among multiple transportation providers and is capped at $4 million a year.


Complicating matters has been San Francisco supervisors’ unwillingness to move forward with proposals for a toll on vehicles entering and leaving Treasure Island. The toll is deemed to be essential—in part for the revenues it would produce, but also because it would discourage island residents and workers from using private vehicles to access the island.


San Francisco supervisors balked at the toll plan during a meeting in December, following a very public outcry by existing Treasure Island businesses and residents. Many of those currently on the island live in subsidized housing, including a number of military veterans. Since that supervisors meeting, SFCTA has gone back to the drawing board, and a modified toll plan is ultimately expected to be approved, which may include mitigation for current Treasure Island residents.


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.