Gentrifying Treasure Island takes a toll

image, Gentrifying Treasure Island takes a toll, News & Views

Treasure Island as envisioned by developers and City leaders who, by implementing a toll on those who do not live but shop, visit and work on the island, will further isolate the folks currently there and push the community to become wealthier and whiter. – Photo: KRON4

The Treasure Island toll policy will be decided upon at a Special Joint San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board, Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency Board and San Francisco Board of Supervisors virtual meeting Tuesday, March 8, at 9:00 a.m. The announcement of the meeting can be found on the City’s website at

The meeting’s agenda, instructions on how to log onto the video of the meeting live and how to call into the meeting for public comment, as well as the supporting documents, will be available under the “More information” tab – but not until 72 hours before the meeting on Saturday, March 5, at 9:00 a.m.

Call in for the public comment and tell the Supervisors: NO TOLL! In the meantime, you can call or email the Supervisors’ offices to tell them NO TOLL! Their contact info can be found at:

by Treasure Island Organizing Committee

People ask why Treasure Island residents and business owners, like the members of the Treasure Island Organizing Committee (TIOC), continue to oppose the toll even though their district supervisor, Matt Haney, who ran for office opposing the toll and championed some of the changes they proposed, has come out in support of the latest plan to implement it. 

Haney says we have gotten everything he committed to. So what’s our problem? Are we just a bunch of NIMBYs who want to say “no” to everything and keep Treasure Island as our own little island paradise?

As a coalition of island residents and business, the TIOC has never once opposed the affordable housing of the development. In fact, many residents hope to live in the new housing, and have argued to expand the right of residents to qualify for the new places to newer residents who don’t fit the City’s cutoff time. Business owners welcome more population who may expand their customer base on the island. 

But there are many issues we have raised and raised again with the latest toll proposal at the very meeting Haney claimed everything was resolved, that we feel have not been addressed. 

City’s trusteeship comes with opportunities and responsibilities 

For starters, Treasure Island was built upon bay tidal lands. According to the California State Constitution, that makes the shoreline areas public trust lands, owned by the people of the state. That means in order for San Francisco to build its project there, it had to get special permission from the state agencies protecting the public’s land: the State Lands Commission (SLC) and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). 

In 2014, the City negotiated and signed agreements with both agencies making San Francisco the trustee of the island, the legal guardian of the people’s lands, and agreeing to protect the public’s right to unobstructed access to them for their enjoyment and recreation, like all other state waterfront properties. 

They concocted a plan to dump the costs of the City’s poor planning and deal-making on the residents and business owners of TI.

Neither the contract nor the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) they were based on made any mention of the public having to pay a toll to do that. The City’s original plan, the one the state agencies gave approval for, had only island residents, not visitors, paying the toll. 

But by 2016 City staff planners realized they had given the developers such a sweetheart deal that there wasn’t money to fulfill the planned project as promised. But, rather than go back to the billionaire developers that are making a fortune on the project, they concocted a plan to dump the costs of the City’s poor planning and deal-making on the residents and business owners of TI – on our friends and relatives, on our businesses and their vendors and customers – to pay the difference. 

Rather than alert the state agencies and work with them to make appropriate changes to the contracts – which likely would have required rewriting the EIR and set the development back several years – City transportation planners simply wrote a new plan charging all drivers, visitors, recreational users and residents alike, and told the supervisors they only needed to vote for it and all would be well again. 

Oops! Not really. The San Francisco Boardsailing Association (SFBA), an organization representing thousands of local windsurfers and kiteboarders, finally found out about the toll changes and the violation of the state agencies contract in November 2021. 

Very soon, they alerted BCDC and SLC. BCDC informed the City it couldn’t make these changes unilaterally, and that more needed to be done. But, rather than comply with their duties as public land trustees, the City went radio silent until Haney and City staff could schedule a meeting on March 8, 2022, to finalize its plan. 

The date chosen for the meeting was originally the day much of the City’s media will be preoccupied with coverage of election day results of the school board recall, the hotly contested Assembly District 17 primary and the San Francisco assessor-recorder race.

Social policy determined by transportation policy?

The deceit and deception around public policy was stunning, especially since the Treasure Island project is San Francisco’s largest ever single development – and its biggest financial project. And it comes on the heels of the City’s huge corruption scandal in the public works department

To make matters worse, there were already numerous lingering issues island residents and business owners were trying to get the City to pay attention to and resolve. 

All the public meetings the City has called to get feedback on its toll plans have been met with unanimous opposition. That kind of consensus among the island residents, business owners and recreational users who have daily life experience on TI and want to continue there should give pause and further consideration.

The biggest misconception about the toll, now being spread by Sup. Haney, is that only the rich will pay.

For a couple of years, the TIOC has been calling for an economic impact study of the toll. How will it affect the demographics of the island’s population? How will it affect the businesses, nonprofits and services island people depend on, especially in a neighborhood with so many affordable housing and low-income residents? 

Many of the residents, through years of activism, have wrested exemptions to the toll from the City. But what about all their friends and relatives who support them as caretakers, child care helpers, the food pantry volunteers and the people who bring student meals? And those who help with health care services, including their Covid work, testing and vaccinating our neighbors and providing test kits and masks? 

What about the little leaguers, soccer players and their parents who use the athletic fields, or kids learning to sail at the island’s sailing center, or the volunteers who supervise their games and learning? It’s already asking a lot from these volunteers without putting further roadblocks in the way of their community service. 

With all of them currently being subject to the toll and its obstacles, how will that affect the quality of life on the island, especially for the children growing up there? This is social policy being determined by transportation policy. 

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the toll, now being spread by Sup. Haney, is that only the rich will pay. The new proposal includes a plan to allow anyone in the area to apply for a low-income exemption or discount to the toll. 

However, it is just a pipe dream. CalTrans, which administers the FasTrak system the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency (TIMMA) staff said it would use for this purpose, has yet to develop a program that can take individual accounts and apply the multitude of tiered charges based on the time of day and the income of a driver, let alone test that system – and CalTrans has no clear plans or schedule to do so. 

TIMMA’s staff response to this barrier was simply that, if necessary, TIMMA planned to move forward and develop its own software to do it without CalTrans. How the City plans to implement a solution beyond the capabilities of CalTrans – the agency with the most expertise in the state on electronic toll collection – remains unanswered and Haney should know that. 

Many meetings, few answers

How will the toll affect the small businesses on TI, especially those that depend on off-island customers? Will they still come? And how will they handle the extra expenses incurred by their employees coming and going from the island, and their vendors and suppliers who already hesitate to serve the far-flung neighborhood?

We have had meetings with staff to ask questions and give feedback to proposals, but many times we don’t get answers or we are told that staff will check and get us the answers at the next meeting. But we end up asking the same questions over and over and still don’t get answers.

Only a tiny fraction of the businesses qualified.

The issue of the business subsidies is a case in point. At our Sept. 14 meeting with staff we asked once again which businesses qualify for the employee subsidies. One of our members raised the issue that a number of businesses and nonprofits on TI don’t have employees as envisioned and planned for in the subsidy proposal. They have members, clients and volunteers, not employees. Do they qualify? How do they fit in this model? Staff responded that these differences were news to them, and they would have to get back to us on that.

We finally did get an answer, but not until the TIMMA board had already voted and passed the staff proposal. The answer turned out to be that only a tiny fraction of the businesses qualified. 

When we objected, Haney and staff agreed that the policy needed to be revisited and changed, but three months later the only thing that has happened is that the TIMMA Board set the March 8 meeting to finalize the plan. 

Transparency and promises 

Again, this leads us back to issues of transparency, citizen input and basic democracy. How are we supposed to evaluate a proposal of this size and significance without numbers backing up the proposed actions? 

It leads us back to the 10 lessons of congestion pricing that Sup. Haney, as chair of TIMMA, and District 10 Sup. Shamann Walton, who sat on the three-member TIMMA committee at that time, brought back from an international conference on congestion pricing in London and Stockholm in 2020 they attended. 

Here we list some of those lessons whose lack of implementation continue to create problems. 

  1. Be aware of your data needs and start collecting data immediately in order to make informed decisions. 
  2. Use pilots and allow the results to speak for themselves. 
  3. Design a congestion pricing program with the No. 1 goal to advance equity. 
  4. Build a big tent for discussion with business, health, equity, environmental, political and other communities.
  5. Raising revenue should not be the main objective of the congestion pricing system. 

The only study the City has done, the only concern it has shown, is how to pay for moving people on and off the island. But a community is much more than just cars and buses and ferries – oh, my! 

Even acknowledging the importance of transportation – no real financial data on what money the toll will raise and how much will be needed to cover the costs of the transportation program has been presented to the public. We have been asking for this for years because, at first look, it doesn’t appear that it could possibly pencil out, and because the planners have already had to change the entire toll scheme once before because it didn’t add up. 

Ferries are notoriously expensive and require huge subsidies. The City’s own study claims that by 2030 the ferry to downtown SF will only carry 2,800 trips out of the projected 72,000 trips per day. 

All the urban eco-idealism in the universe doesn’t translate in the real world.

And then there are all the toll exemptions and subsidies that don’t contribute to the toll fund. Is this really feasible? Will we be seeing the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency (TIMMA), whose staff keeps telling us they have the legal power to change the terms of the toll whenever they deem fit and start raising the toll regularly to cover what they didn’t plan for again?

And, while the ferry is a fun and relaxing way of crossing the Bay if you are a commuter going into the City carrying only a coat and a briefcase, if you are a mother of several children taking them into the City every morning for school – TI has no schools – that is a very different trip. All the urban eco-idealism in the universe doesn’t translate in the real world.

Even the process of approving the toll was flawed. The enabling legislation granting TIMMA the authority to impose a toll, AB981, requires a two-thirds vote of the TIMMA Board and the Board of Supervisors, not a two-thirds vote of the members who bothered to be present on the day of the vote – July 26, 2016. 

The proposed toll was passed by a unanimous voice vote, but only seven members were present – enough for a quorum, but not two-thirds of the Board. So, even the passage of the toll was illegitimate, although the City has acted as if it was ever since then.

Not done yet

Before calling for the TIMMA committee vote at its Jan. 25 meeting on whether the proposal should be advanced to the full TIMMA Board, Haney gave a nod to the strategy of congestion pricing as necessary. He said he wants transit options to be in place before the toll is implemented, that it shouldn’t apply to current residents and that support for current businesses and their employees needs to be done in an equitable way. 

But he did not address how future businesses, especially the kind of neighborhood-serving businesses any area needs and that would reduce the number of off-island trips for residents, would deal with the negative effects of the toll.

Haney, who is running for a state assembly seat and will not likely be around to keep those promises delayed into an unforeseen future, asserted he has kept all the commitments he has made, even if his TI constituents would beg to differ. He dismissed concerns about all the holes in the proposed policy by calling the plan a “framework” that can be filled out later.

Even if TIMMA does approve the toll proposal, it is not a done deal. In fact, neither BCDC nor SLC can sue to enforce their public trust contracts until TIMMA actually imposes the toll and violates the agreements. 

If sound public policy is the goal of the SF Board of Supervisors, this plan falls far short. With so many issues still unaddressed and more than two years before the scheduled toll implementation, we can’t help but wonder why this proposal is being rushed through.

How we plan this can make the difference of whether we bring opportunity, prosperity and equity to TI, or if it becomes a gated bedroom enclave. At stake here are thousands of real people’s real lives as well as a San Francisco community living here for decades. Let’s get it done right, not just expeditiously.