For whom the bridge tolls

Like it or not, Marin, it tolls for thee …

Photo by Julie Vader

Photo by Julie Vader

The tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge are probably going up again.

The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District officially unveiled the proposed toll hikes in November: up to $8 in 2018. On Tuesday, Jan. 21, Marin will be the first stop in three straight days of public meetings on the matter.

Why the second toll increase in six years? Bridge officials cite inflation, bridge maintenance, supporting the bus and ferry lines, and capital projects such as construction on the bridge’s south end at Doyle Drive—and it’s all blah, blah, blah to one outspoken Marinite, who has heard all about each toll increase for the past 25 years.

While this Tiburon resident aims to topple this special district—of the eight Bay Area bridges, the state runs all but the Golden Gate—its management hardly seems worried. Maybe just a little piqued.

As one California historian and author of an expose on the Golden Gate Bridge District points out, bridge management is not going anywhere. And as far as tolls go, she continues, Marin might have a pretty good deal.


Today, crossing the Golden Gate costs $5 for FasTrak users and $6 for those without a transponder (who are charged when their license plate is photographed passing through the toll stations located only on the south side of the bridge). It’s all part of the all-electronic tolling system rolled out last spring, which the bridge district has touted as a successful strategy of cutting jobs to cut costs. (Five of the 28 laid-off toll collectors—the district has cut staff from about 1,050 employees 10 years ago to about 775 full-time workers today—now drive bridge district buses.)

Since e-tolling makes slightly increasing rates easier, since cash tolls had to be on the dollar, the district has for the first time suggested the rate hikes be incremental. The hope is that gradual toll increases of 25 cents to a dollar will make the bite easier for commuters to absorb.

There are four proposed plans, all raising tolls starting this April and increasing once each year through July 2018. The cheapest option, which would net the district an estimated $93 million by the end of July 2018, starts with a 50-cent increase for both FasTrak and pay-by-plate drivers and stops at a final toll of $6.50 and $8, respectively. The most expensive, projected to bring in $138 million, begins with a $1 increase and ends at $7 and $8. The last toll increase was in 2008, up $1 each for FasTrak and everyone else.

District officials say the organization faces a shortage of $142 million and need higher tolls to help reduce it. The bridge district’s highest echelon, the 19-member board of directors representing the district’s six founding counties, could vote on which plan to choose in February.

Zero toll increase is not one of the plans.


Ever since 1989, Tiburon resident Susan Deluxe has had enough.

Bridge district news-buffs may recognize Deluxe’s name from the Los Angeles Times or the Marin Independent Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, or from ABC and CBS news’ San Francisco affiliates. She has filled the role of bridge critic in their stories through the years, and her criticisms have included toll increases, corporate sponsorships along the bridge, and the bridge district itself.

Deluxe once brought a boom box to a bridge district public meeting and played a reworded version of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” featuring her friend’s husband singing the lyrics to “I Got Ripped Off On My Way to San Francisco.”

She doesn’t just keep tabs on the bridge, though.

“Some people know me from the aircraft over-flight noise issue,” Deluxe says of her time in the early 2000s working with a grassroots coalition to direct flights away from her house on Paradise Drive. After noticing more frequent and louder, low flying planes—in an era “when people had to have their L.L.Bean moccasins the next morning”—Deluxe worked to have the FAA move some flight corridors.

“What I learned from that was never underestimate the power of one pissed-off person,” Deluxe says, seated at a corner table at Emporio Rulli in Larkspur in late December. She has a manila folder labeled “Golden Gate Bridge 2013” and typed-up notes. “This is just taking me a little longer.”

She laughs.

Deluxe crosses the Golden Gate Bridge about three times a week for work and rarely for pleasure, as she has pulled all of her personal services out of the city (haircuts, doctor visits, accountant stuff). Most of the clients of her business, Earth Angels Green Cleaning, live in Marin. Back when Deluxe first took issue with toll hikes—in 1989 when the tolls were $2—she was working as a masseuse, hauling a massage table around in her trunk and crossing the bridge for work about five times a week.

Today Deluxe still protests the 2014 toll increase but, first and foremost, she wants commuters to question the very existence of the bridge district.

“It’s not about the toll so much,” she says. “It’s about the relevance of the bridge district. It doesn’t meet our transit needs any longer.”

The bridge district is not a state, not a municipal, but rather an independent government body that oversees the bridge as well as a network of buses and ferries serving the same North-South corridor, aka the Golden Gate. It is a special district, formed in 1928 with San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, and parts of Mendocino and Napa counties, according to the district. In 1937, the district accomplished its first goal: to finish building a bridge. In 1971, it met its second: to pay off the construction bonds. Bridge tolls paid off the debt.

In 1969, though, the California legislature authorized the district to develop mass transit along the corridor. Approximately 3.3 million vehicles crossed the bridge in 1937; and by 1967 that number had gone up 750 percent. Marin was growing. By the time the bonds were paid in 1971, the district no longer just cared for a bridge, it managed a ferry system and, soon, buses.

Deluxe questions how the district spends toll money and how it would ever avoid future deficits without always raising tolls.

“Their financial model is broken,” Deluxe says. “Toll increases will never meet the financial needs of the Golden Gate Bridge District … It didn’t meet it in 1989 when they raised the toll. It didn’t meet it … in 2008. It won’t meet it with the 2014 toll increase.

“If they were really going to wipe out the deficit, I think the toll would have to be $15 or $20, but they don’t have the temerity to bring that before the public … They don’t have the balls to say, ‘You know, folks, what we really need to get ourselves out of this mess is a $15 or a $20 toll.’ That would be so unpalatable to the public, and then you would finally see people up in arms.”

The district brought in $198.7 million in fiscal year 2012-13 (July 1 to June 30), with $102.3 million coming from tolls and the remaining chunk from bus and ferry fares, federal and state grants, as well as other services like investments and advertising on buses and ferries. Salaries and fringe benefits—services like retirement, healthcare and dental—took up 72 percent of the district’s $156.29 million budget in fiscal year 2012-2013.

“If you just look at the economies of scale, why do we need a separate bureaucracy to manage the bridge? Caltrans runs seven in the Bay Area,” Deluxe says. “The financial liability of [just] six counties running the bridge, the economies of scale [of Caltrans], the risk involved … You can no longer justify a standalone special district.”

The seven other Bay Area bridges all collect tolls one-way, and they all cost $5 per vehicle and $2.50 per carpool, except for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which reaches $6 for vehicles during weekday rush hours. These tolls’ estimated annual revenue of $645 to $850 million more than cover the costs of the bridges, according to John Goodwin, public information officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA), which manages the seven other bridges’ tolls. Of BATA’s roughly $1 billion yearly budget, Caltrans operations and maintenance accounts for about 2.7 percent of revenue, electronic tolling collection operations and maintenance accounts for about 3.7, and BATA administration takes about 1.5 percent. Most of the rest pays off debt.

Shifting the Golden Gate Bridge to Caltrans and BATA control “would take at least one action and probably several by the state legislature,” Goodwin says, who seemed surprised by the idea. “I’m not aware of any such proposal.”

Deluxe plans to meet with state Sen. Noreen Evans and state Assemblymember Marc Levine, who both represent Marin, to drum up “legislative support in Sacramento.”

“We deserve to have some real numbers—a study to see what it would look like to have Caltrans run the bridge. What would be the cost savings? What would be the cost to the state to take it over? … For instance, Denis Mulligan’s salary, we wouldn’t need a Denis Mulligan anymore, right? You know, everyone that sits in that building over there, because they have their counterparts at Caltrans.”


Denis Mulligan has been the bridge district’s general manager since 2010. He lives in the East Bay and often gets to work by driving over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, parking, then taking a Golden Gate Transit bus to the bridge district office at the southwest corner of the Golden Gate Bridge. According to the most recent data from the California State Controller’s Office (2011), Mulligan made $286,359 that year.

“We want to be transparent about how we spend your money, because otherwise you’re going to want to put us out of business,” he says in his second-floor office, with the big orange bridge looming beyond and two fat, spiral-bound notebooks stuffed with district stats stacked before him on the conference table.

A sampling: Tolls are projected to bring in 42 percent, or $101.6 million, of the district’s funds for fiscal year 2013-14, and 48 percent of the $241.9 million budget is expected to be spent on running the buses and ferries. Operating the bridge is expected to take 27 percent of this year’s budget.

“Typically in the morning commute, there is no back up on the Golden Gate Bridge and the reason is because 25 percent of all trips are on our buses and ferries during the commute periods,” Mulligan says. “So the quality of life in the community would be greatly diminished if that service were not available. That service needs an operating subsidy.”

While ferry ridership crept up from about 1.66 million passengers in 2004 to 2.33 million in 2013, overall bus ridership has reduced from about 7.94 million passengers in 2004 to about 6.63 million in 2013. The district, unlike other transportation agencies, does not have the authority to levy taxes.

“Right or wrong, over time the elected officials in the region have felt that using surplus bridge tolls to subsidize the bus and ferry service—as opposed to having a sales tax or property tax in Marin for regional transit services—is the right way to go.

The thinking behind that is the people that pay the toll benefit. You know, in the morning commute, you’re driving the speed limit because your neighbor is riding the bus and ferry subsidized with your toll.”

Traffic across the bridge has remained pretty flat for the past 10 years, from 38.88 million total vehicles in fiscal year 2003-04, to 37.22 million last fiscal year. A 1999 license plate survey found that 39.6 percent of commuters hailed from Marin, with the next highest group being 21.1 percent from San Francisco. The rest come from Sonoma, San Mateo, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Napa, Solano and other counties, respectively. A one-week 2008 license plate survey showed 44.1 percent of drivers hailed from Marin and 26.5 percent from San Francisco.

“There’s a recognition that getting more people out of their cars in Marin by choice—where the individual chooses to take transit because it’s first-class, high-quality service—is a desirable goal that benefits Marin and benefits SF,” Mulligan says. “Marin gets the lion’s share of our transit ridership but they pay less than half the tolls, so it’s a good deal for Marin.”

Bridge district board member and Tiburon Mayor Alice Fredericks says that very few public transit systems are self-sustaining.

“It’s especially hard here in Marin County because the demographics of this are the most difficult of jurisdictions to provide public transit for, because it’s a low-density population, and that’s one of our prime community values,” she says. “So what you have to do is offer good enough service to attract people who really have the choice to drive a car no matter what the fares on the Golden Gate Bridge are. So you need good scheduling, you need buses and ferries that really work and are in good shape … you have to offer them those amenities.”

California historian and Paying the Toll author Louise Nelson Dyble points out that Marinites could think of the bridge as a sort of “protection for Marin’s rural character.”

“The way I understand the Golden Gate Bridge is as a real estate development project,” says Dyble, who adds that bridge representatives didn’t look kindly on her investigative work for her 2009 book on the bridge’s history. “It was designed to promote Marin as a bedroom community, and then when they decided that Marin had enough growth, it became kind of flipped, ironically, and kind of managed to keep growth in check … The bridge is really a bottle neck, and it’s an obstacle.”

Fredericks doubts the ability of Caltrans successfully taking over the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Caltrans does not have the tools in which to manage the amount of traffic that goes over the bridge,” Fredericks says. “They don’t run a bus system. They don’t run a transportation system that addresses it. [When] you have another agency coming along and trying to advocate for the interests of Marin and asking Caltrans to open a third lane on the Richmond Bridge during commute hours, they have so much state regulation and so many constraints, that you end up with this traffic negotiation and it may or may not happen. Caltrans has control over that, but they’re constrained by state law and their own policies, and they have no control over the traffic.”

Dyble has no doubts when asked about the likelihood of Caltrans or another agency usurping Golden Gate operations.

“Definitely not,” she says. “It’s functional. It does its job. There’s just a very basic principle of bureaucracy—it has a tremendous amount of inertia. They’re self-sustaining. There are 775 people whose jobs depend on the bridge district. They’re raising the tolls. They have the power to do that. They’re not going anywhere.”

So she recommends commuters push for what they want. After all, she says, a special district doesn’t have as much red tape or as many strings binding it like many government agencies.

“The bridge district hasn’t been particularly ambitious, but it did implement the bus system, it did create the ferry system, and it had the power to maintain itself,” she says.

“We have this agency, it has the potential to do a lot, it doesn’t have to do anything, but it’s not going anywhere. It’s there to stay, and we really should think of it critically, what can actually be done with this agency. What can it do?”

This story appeared in the Pacific Sun newspaper on January 17, 2014.

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