For those of us who remember when crossing the Golden Gate Bridge cost a dollar, the possibility of raising the non-FasTrak toll to $8 might have triggered a knee-jerk “What?! An $8 toll?!” response, followed by a few expletives, and finally, some questions like, “Why do they need so much more money if the bridge is already built?” or “When will the increase take effect?” For those of you have reached the questioning phase of your reaction, here a few things to keep in mind when considering the ultimate $8 price tag:
1) Wednesday is the Final Day of the Public Comment Period
Speak now or forever hold your peace. Interested parties and persons have until 8 p.m. tonight to submit a comment on what fare increase they prefer. The formal public comment meeting is also tonight at 7 p.m. in San Rafael. And by “tonight,” yes, we mean Feb. 12, 2014.
Those seeking alternatives to a Golden Gate Bridge toll increase of two bucks over the next five years seem to be pretty much out of luck. The options listed on the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District website suggest that the options are pretty much six of one, half a dozen of the other. The four options the district wants feedback on all add up to a $2 increase. It’s simply a matter of how quickly that increase is implemented — all at once or bit by bit.
2) The Golden Gate Bridge District Manages Much More Than a Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, the agency that manages the bridge, is “basically a transit agency,” according to its general manager and CEO Denis Mulligan. “We spend over half of our tolls on subsidizing bus and ferry service,” Mulligan said on KQED’s “Forum“. “We carry 25 percent of all trips from the North Bay into the city on our buses and ferries during commute periods.”
3) Currently No Sidewalk Toll Is on the Table
During “Forum’s” discussion, several listeners inquired about charging pedestrians and cyclists who use the bridge. Mulligan made it clear that a sidewalk fee will not defer the proposed auto toll.
“When (the board) put forward the proposals they did not include a sidewalk toll, so at this juncture they could not approve a sidewalk as part of the toll increase.” said Mulligan. “That having been said – they have the discretion to impose a sidewalk toll. There were turnstiles up until 1971 where people dropped a dime in to get on the bridge.”
Mulligan said that the bridge sees about 10,000 pedestrians a day during the summer and about 6,000 cyclists daily.
4) The Bridge District Receives No Local Tax Support
Supporters and opponents of the toll increase repeatedly pointed out the bridge’s lack of tax support during “Forum’s” discussion. Mulligan used the fact to support the higher toll: “We do not receive sales tax measure money or property tax measure money from San Francisco or Marin counties, so tolls are the source of our principal subsidy for bus and ferry service.”
The district’s website lists “transit fares, grants, and advertising/concessions” as other sources of revenue.
Susan Deluxe, a Marin-based activist and opponent of the toll hike, views the lack of tax support as one reason to reform how the bridge is managed.
“Marin has to man-up and find a different way to fund public transit,” said Deluxe. “It’s totally unsustainable. It’s not the Golden Fleece Bridge, it’s not the Cash Cow Bridge, and Marin County and San Francisco — the largest percentage of riders across the bridge are from those two counties – they’re not ATM machines.”
She drew comparisons to the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District. According to Deluxe, “Property tax is their biggest source of funding, 29 percent of their budget comes from property tax, county sales tax contributes 8 percent, the fare box another 17 percent. So it’s not rocket science — this is how other counties do it and we need to do it, too.”
5) The Bridge District Has Been Criticized for Overpaying Its Leaders
One of Deluxe’s other complaints against the bridge district is that it is top-heavy with too many managers, who earn too much money. And a user who identified himself by the name “JonMW72” left this comment on “Forum’s” website:
“The salaries of management are a bit outrageous if you look at the publicly available database. What is the deputy GM of the bridge doing making $176,000 a year? Deputy GM of the bus division makes $323,000 a year. A ‘paint superintendent’ makes $118,000 …”
Mulligan responded to the criticism by citing measures to control staff costs:
“We’ve taken a variety of steps to reduce the cost of staff, both those staff that are still here, through changes in medical coverage, contributions from employees, employees paying part of their pension, but also (by) reducing the number of employees. We have 25 percent fewer employees than we had a decade ago.”
6) Bridge Traffic Numbers Are Stalled
The district says that its costs are rising while bridge traffic and thus, toll revenue, is staying the same.
Again, citing the district’s website:
“Fuel for the buses and ferries and steel and paint for the bridge are more expensive today than in 2008 when tolls were last increased. At the same time, toll revenues have remained flat as traffic volumes have not grown.”
Mulligan mentioned on “Forum” that “ferry ridership is up 7 percent compared to a year earlier, and our regional bus service is up 3 percent.” He did not elaborate on how those increases are helping, if at all, to recover rising operating costs.
7) Improvements and Maintenance Projects Are Planned
A “Forum” listener asked Mulligan to explain what the public will get in return for the increased tolls. His response:
“We have growing capital needs on the bridge. The bridge is 76 years old, and we also have growing capital needs on our 40-year-old bus and ferry facilities. So we have an array of projects coming up, and one of the most visible ones is later this year we’ll install a movable median barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. Those things cost money.”
Mulligan also mentioned the district’s $75 million commitment to the Doyle Drive retrofit, as well as improving ramps and gangways on ferry terminals.
“We go to Washington, D.C., and we go to Sacramento to get other people’s money, but we need some toll dollars to match those. Over the next 10 years, our capital costs are anticipated to be $1.4 billion. And we anticipate we’ll need about $370 million of tolls to maximize the amount of federal and state grants we can get.”
8) Some People Want to Do Away with the Bridge District Altogether
“We really need to shift the conversation of the debate to restructuring, sunsetting, reorganizing — whatever word you want to use — the Golden Gate Bridge District,” said Deluxe. “It’s just not relevant anymore and it’s become an obstacle.”
“I would like to see the (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) really study this issue,” said Deluxe. “That’s where it needs to land — is have them do a serious study to see what it would take to restructure the bridge district — whether Caltrans runs the bridge — I mean the bridge makes money — or whether it remains a stand-alone special district if that still makes sense.”
“Marin has been trying to reform and get rid of the Golden Gate Bridge District since 1988, when we passed an advisory ordinance calling for a toll-increase moratorium until the 19-member board was at least appointed.”said Deluxe. “That passed by 72 percent.”
If you fall into the camp of those you want to absolve the bridge district, your comments might be directed to your state representatives rather than the bridge district’s current comment process.