Treasure Island Development Agency Plays It Coy

WETA and San Francisco's Treasure Island development agency continue to dance around an agreement on launching ferry service to and from the island in 2021-and so far, they're out of step.


Published: May, 2019


WETA and San Francisco’s Treasure Island development agency continue to dance around an agreement on launching ferry service to and from the island in 2021—and so far, they’re out of step.


After months of discussions and public utterances about timing and cost, there is still not so much as a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two organizations.


And Treasure Island development officials take an oddly elusive tack when asked to specify exactly what terms they are seeking. “We want to continue discussion and work on an MOU,” Eric Cordoba, deputy director of capital projects for the San Francisco Transportation Authority, said at WETA’s April board meeting. “[But] frankly, we have our hands full in getting a toll rate approved.”


To be sure, the timing and amount of a toll on vehicles coming to the island is a critical part of its transit finances. And both Cordoba and WETA staff members express dogged optimism about an eventual agreement between the two agencies.


“We are here to forge a partnership,” said Cordoba. He was echoed by WETA Executive Director Nina Rannells, who said: “I’m optimistic we can figure out a way to make this happen.”


But behind the diplomatically couched optimism lies the stark reality that, after years of talking, the two sides have failed to hammer out terms that would allow for ferry boats to be designed, bid, constructed, tested and launched in time to meet a 2021 target date for launching service to and from the island. Ordering a new boat, from conception to launch, normally takes two years.


“Time is working against us,” said WETA Chair Jody Breckenridge.


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


The first ferries were initially scheduled to run from the island in 2023. WETA board members and staff all believed that the development authority would pay for a ferry boat and a big chunk of its operations, relying on developer subsidies and monies generated by passengers, new parking meters to be installed on the island and the toll charged to vehicles entering and leaving the island.


But several water transit sources say that, in the absence of a formal MOU, that equation changed last year when the island’s private developers, thinking that the presence of ferries would make their real estate offerings more attractive, demanded that the boat service begin in 2021.


San Francisco’s Treasure Island development authorities have gotten behind that earlier date, but the island’s new neighborhood won’t be far enough along to generate sufficient revenue—whether through tolls, parking meters or transit fees—to pay for the ferries. And complicating the matter has been initial resistance by San Francisco supervisors to charge tolls on the island, a resistance that is taking time to dissolve.


So, in addition to changing the start date for ferry service, WETA directors say San Francisco’s Treasure Island transportation development authority has backed away from paying for the ferry and much of its operation, instead demanding that WETA come up with at least a large part of the money.


San Francisco’s apparently evolving approach to both deadlines and financing was recently extended to the ferry dock itself, which Treasure Island developers have agreed to underwrite. WETA officials said they have been working with the development agency on a dock design for some time, but were surprised recently when shown drawings of a dock with a single side for a ferry and a second side suitable only for a water taxi.


“We had understood we would have a two-sided ferry dock, with a separate discrete facility for taxis,” said one WETA official who has been involved in the planning. “But now it appears not.”


Despite the gap in perceptions and apparently changing terms, it seems clear that WETA wants a formal MOU that will nail down terms and allow it to move forward. The ferry boat agency’s staff and directors realize that inflexibility on their part could push Treasure Island developers to bypass the public sector and contract for ferry service from one of several private firms—an outcome the ferry agency is anxious to avoid.


As WETA Planning Manager Kevin Connolly recently told the board, in noting the absence of an MOU: “There is no [formal] commitment from either side. Without that marriage [they] are free to play the field—a private operator could potentially provide this service. [But] we are going to continue to work together.”


But if WETA’s intentions seem clear, those of the development agency are less so. Our telephone and email requests to Cordoba to discuss his agency’s thinking went unanswered for two days—and then a public affairs spokesperson requested a list of questions in writing. When we reiterated our desire to speak directly with Cordoba, the agency went silent.