Planes, Trains, and No Automobiles on Treasure Island

Treasure Island is set to accommodate tens of thousands of new residents by the early 2030s. How will they get around?

In 1939, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged tons of mud and rock to create Treasure Island, the centerpiece of the Golden Gate International Exposition. Today, this island made for pomp and pageantry is getting an even more massive — and, hopefully, lasting — renovation.

The Treasure Island Development Authority’s building plan for Treasure Island could be as transformative as hot lava remaking Hawaii’s Big Island. The overall scheme calls for 8,000 new residential units, 140,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, 100,000 square feet of new office space, and approximately 300 acres of parks and open space, all coming in at a whopping $5 billion, “depending on market conditions.”

However high the cost of developing Treasure Island ends up, this project is pushing ahead. In the next two decades, a new neighborhood will be dropped into the middle of the Bay, increasing the demand for more cars, buses, trains, ferries, scooters, and whatever new transport is trending in 20 years. (Mile-long zipline? Uber flying taxi?)

Treasure Island was, of course, the region’s original airport, and traces of Pan-Am’s legacy remain in streets like Clipper Cove Way. (Clippers were the pre-Jet Age “flying boats” that dominated air travel in the 1920s and 1930s.) But if the current scooter wars are any indication, it’s never too early to plan transportation for a project of this scale and cost.

Rachel Hiatt, principal planner of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, says there’s one nightmare scenario to avoid at all costs: the possibility that these additional Treasure Island residents may choose to drive alone.

SFCTA has a plan in mind to avoid that nightmare. The agency believes that at least 50 percent of the trips to and from the improved Treasure Island must be by “sustainable modes,” such as public transit, ride-share, or ferry.

“We do not want to add car traffic to the Bay Bridge,” Hiatt tells SF Weekly. Referring to the 25-Treasure Island bus, she adds, “There are only two ways to get to Treasure Island now: Muni 25 or drive. The Muni 25 runs 24 hours from the temporary Transbay Terminal, and can be as quick as 12 minutes, depending on SoMa traffic.”

To enforce this plan, the SFCTA is drafting a rule requiring that new residents will be required to purchase transit passes. A frequent, off-island shuttle to destinations not served by Muni is among several incentives to get residents out from behind the wheel. The planned on-off ramp from the Transbay Terminal will also allow buses to get right onto the Bay Bridge and avoid the SoMa congestion, according to Hiatt.

According to the Treasure Island Transportation Plan, a congestion toll on the island will provide a “financial incentive to drivers to get out of their cars, particularly during peak hours.” Those funds will be dedicated to developing alternatives to driving.

Hiatt also says ride-shares must become more accessible to Treasure Island residents.

“Treasure Island residents have a very hard time getting ride-share like Lyft or Uber or a taxi on the island,” she says. “Even delivery services are hard to get. We want to make Treasure Island a more complete neighborhood.”

One method of getting people out of cars is by not putting people into them in the first place. Joe Burgard, executive vice president of Red and White fleet, a private Bay ferry service dedicated to environmentally friendly travel, sees a San Francisco-to-Treasure Island route as the perfect opportunity for a sustainable, green commute.

“The Treasure Island route to San Francisco is very short,” Burgard tells SF Weekly. “Most of that passage will be spent in the approach and docking rather than in the transit itself, which means you don’t need a lot of speed, so an all-electric ferry is definitely possible.”

Burgard says a number of all-electric ferries are running in Northern Europe already, and the first of its kind in the U.S. will begin daily service this summer in Alabama on a car ferry.

For such a short route, with only two boats operating, commuters might only have a 10- to 15-minute wait time for ferries between San Francisco and Treasure Island. And Burgard emphasizes how modern technology has made ferries more environmentally sustainable than ever.

“All lubricants that interface with the water on these new vessels are biodegradable,” he says. “A floating dock on Treasure Island could take into account sea-level rise, and the Ferry Building has already raised its pier apron three feet for sea level rise.”

The only environmental downside of ferries has been shore-side erosion by a ferry’s repeated wake against sensitive habitats, as well as the possibility of striking marine mammals. But the ferry’s low speed would negate those impacts.

And, unlike a road crowded with cars, there’s a “lot of water out there,” according to Burgard.

Hiatt sees the upside in ferries over cars — “Ferries don’t get stuck in Bay Bridge traffic,” she says — but believes the answer to the transportation puzzle lies in offering multiple options.

“We see great opportunities for a green ferry,” Hiatt says. “We are definitely exploring this possibility.”

But at the end of the day, “We still need multiple options. A ferry tends to be more expensive than a bus in terms of operation, because a ferry needs multiple people to operate it as opposed to one driver.”

Eric Young, senior communications officer for the SFCTA, highlights his agency’s recent Emerging Mobility Evaluation Report, a comprehensive review of the network of transportation technologies available in the Bay Area, from electric buses to scooters to rideshares, as a field guide for what kinds of services we might see on Treasure Island.

“Even though we have the goal of 50 percent reduction of car traffic to and from Treasure Island, we are still preparing for more traffic,” Young says. “We expect there will be more vehicle traffic so we’re replacing existing off-ramps with new ones that can handle higher volumes of traffic.

As far as the bicycle option goes, while it’s possible to cycle from Oakland to Treasure Island, no such option exists from San Francisco to Treasure Island yet, a void that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition would love filled sooner rather than later.

“San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has long advocated for an option for people to bike on the western span of the Bay Bridge — and to connect to the wonderful span on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge,” SFBC’s Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier tells SF Weekly. “And we hope that becomes a reality.”

According to Wiedenmeier, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has contracted a civil engineering firm, Arup, to design a western span for bicycles and walkers. Although these plans have been discussed for many years, the final design plan may be out as soon as June.

“Early estimates are that up to 10,000 people a day would use that path,” Wiedenmeier says. “Five miles on a bike might sound like a stretch for some folks, but there are many who do that already. And electric-assist bikes can now make that commute even easier for more people.”

Wiedenmeier believes a new path could attract a whole new population of riders.

“Think of how many thousands of tourists do the same thing on the Golden Gate every day,” he says. “I do a morning ride up Hawk Hill, and I see commuters coming in greater numbers than you might think.

“Trying to retrofit the old bridge for a new use will be a challenge, but look at how many billions we spend on projects for cars,” he adds. “If you look at dollars spent or saved per trip, a bike/walk path will also save overcrowding on BART and traffic issues on the bridge.”

While it’s important for transportation agencies to look ahead, they’re not the only ones with power when it comes to the future of Treasure Island’s transportation. Regional Measure 3, a $4.5 billion dollar transit bill that would raise tolls on the Bay Area’s seven state-owned bridges by $3 over six years, was up for review by voters on June 5.

Although most of that money will go toward BART extensions, such as the link to Santa Clara, RM 3 may help with some Treasure Island transportation funding, potentially, as one of the funding options is for ferries. Another possibility for Treasure Island would be a stop on a second BART tube across the Bay, if that ever happens.

Early projections have the population of Treasure Island swelling from about 2,500 to nearly 20,000 by 2032 when the final stages of development are underway. Whether it’s by car, bus, ferry, bike, or even by foot, those new Treasure Island residents will need a way to come and go. And that need will affect the entire Bay Area.

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