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The Unique Controversy Over the Proposed Treasure Island Toll

In recent weeks we’ve written a couple of stories about Treasure Island and the proposed tolls that would supposedly help reduce traffic issues. One is a tongue-in-cheek peek at the possible future of the Bay Area, the other a serious look at what is being proposed. We also shared information about April’s free webinar on the future of Treasure Island. The following story appears in our April issue, and is of a serious nature. We encourage you to read and learn a little more about the proposal currently under review.

As a new development on Treasure Island blossoms into an 8,000-home neighborhood smack in the middle of the Bay, local governments are bracing for the corresponding surge in traffic, and are looking for ways to curb congestion. The City of San Francisco has proposed a controversial — some would say outrageous — measure meant to both discourage driving to the island and fund public-transit options, such as a ferry servicing TI.

Treasure Island plan
An artist’s rendering of the new Treasure Island development.
© 2022 San Francisco County Transportation Authority

This $5 toll to both enter and exit Treasure Island would take effect in 2024, and has caused an uproar not just in the sailing community, but also among current residents, businesses and outdoors people of all stripes. The entry-and-exit fee could be especially detrimental to the Treasure Island Sailing Center. “A toll of this magnitude would dismantle the community that we have worked hard to build over the past 20 years,” TISC said in a statement.

The idea for the toll seems to have come out of nowhere.

We spoke with a government official closely involved in the initial phases of the development who told us that there was absolutely no mention of a $5 toll when plans were first introduced around 10 years ago. The City of San Francisco negotiated with the State Lands Commission — the agency tasked with ensuring access to California’s public land — to allow developers to build housing in exchange for improved open spaces, such as a shoreline park and public viewing spots. “At no time in those discussions was there an objective to reduce use,” the government official told us, referring to tolls meant to discourage driving. “It’s really poorly thought through, and no one can say who benefits or who pays.”

Last year, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission also echoed concerns about the mysterious toll. In 2021, BCDC wrote a letter to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which is governed by the S.F. Board of Supervisors, saying that when developers applied for their permit in 2016, they did not mention a toll. “This information was not provided at the time the Commission approved [the permit],” BCDC said, adding that because of the potential for such a toll to affect public use of the shoreline park planned for Treasure Island — and required of the BCDC permit that authorizes its construction — BCDC staff has advised SFCTA that a permit will be required for the tolling program. Clearly, there are details to be worked out at the highest levels.

We have also heard several critics of the proposed toll say that the City of San Francisco “let the developers off the hook” by not securing a long-term, privately funded ferry as part of the TI project. Any major development involves lengthy negotiations over the terms. The details of the Treasure Island agreement, especially the particulars about whether the ferry would be paid for by developers, taxpayers, or a mix of both, may have changed as different mayors cycled through City Hall, which is a normal part of the development process.

But the final iteration of the deal triggered a lawsuit over environmental concerns.

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