"How can an agency unilaterally decide to raise tolls over the vast objection of the populace it serves?"
And $5 tolls won't satisfy them forever
June 4, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle
You don't need to be a native to look out at the Golden Gate and see for whom the bridge tolls.
It tolls for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, a quaint, insular agency that seems more than content to keep itself wrapped permanently in a fog.
At the district, bridge tolls are the coin of the realm, a fast pass to longevity and comfort for a transit authority unlike any other in the West. And the years have proved one thing beyond doubt -- few agencies are better at taking commuters for a ride.
The district, in its own incomparable fashion, has determined once again that the only way it can remain viable is by raising the tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge, this time a whopping $2 per car, making the state's highest bridge toll that much higher.
Based on the district's history, and years of feigned insistence that the tolls would not go up, you can rest assured that a $5 bridge fare will soon become a reality. So even if you join others to decry the planned toll increase at the district's June 13 public hearing, it's all but certain that you'll be paying quite a bit more for the pleasure of crossing the 65-year-old bridge by September.
How can an agency unilaterally decide to raise tolls over the vast objection of the populace it serves? Well, when you have to answer only to yourself, the question becomes meaningless.
I covered the bridge district as far back as 1979, when it was something of an old boys country club, a place where politicians hoped to land to enjoy the perks that came with a director's appointment -- not the least of which was free passage on its bridge, ferries and buses. Even then it was an agency where fee increases were a yearly budget issue, since the district rarely looked at its own fat-cat operation to see if some timely cuts could offset its seemingly constant deficit.
Eight years ago, after the bridge district was being investigated by the FBI and the San Francisco district attorney's office for accusations of bid rigging and doctoring its books (nothing came of them), Chronicle ace Susan Sward and I were assigned to look into the agency's operation. It was not long after a local citizens group formed called the Committee to Stop the $5 Toll Increase. The district's officials said such an increase would not happen.
It turns out they didn't mean never. Just not for a while.
Time has marched on, but the district has changed little. It still has one of the largest boards of directors, with 19 members, of any so-called public agency in the Bay Area. It still has a completely anachronistic structure -- its directors are from counties as far away as Mendocino and Del Norte, with little connection to our most pressing transportation issues. And, of course, no member is elected directly by the voters. Instead, most are picked by local county supervisors, a cozy political arrangement that has helped keep the public at bay.
So accountability has never been one of the district's strong suits -- a fact borne out by its long refusal to consider other reforms or possibly even contracting out some of its transportation services. And, of course, it all goes back to the nature of the district itself.
After the bonds to build the bridge were paid off 31 years ago, the district was scheduled to vanish and be taken over by either a state or public agency. Instead, the district's directors pushed for state legislation that gave the agency eternal life. But what would you expect from a group overly reliant on lawyers, lobbyists and political connections?
The best part of the continuing show presented by district officials is their attempt to tell us what a break we're getting with only a $5 bridge toll.
By their own calculations the agency's projected deficit over the next 10 years will be close to $1 billion, which would, by their accounting methods, require an $8 toll. But knowing that that would have the citizenry calling for their heads, district officials decided to project its losses over five years - - hence the call for a $5 toll.
"The ($3) toll has been stretched and stretched and stretched," district spokeswoman Mary Currie told me Monday. "But we knew that the toll could not hold on for eternity."
And just in case we didn't know it, that $3 toll was a really good deal for us, since it allowed the district to get more than $100 million in matching federal funds. All that was supposed to pay for retrofitting our Golden wonder.
But as it turns out, the district has much bigger plans for the venerable bridge -- cable replacement, deck repairs, you name it. And these things don't come cheap.
And by the way, the $2 toll increase won't be enough to cover the district's expenses. So there will be cuts in services as well. It's just not clear exactly whether the cuts will be in buses or ferries or both. At the bridge district, less requires more. It's just the way it's always been.
So for the bargain rate of $5 per car, you can now do your part to allow the district to continue long after it should have been disbanded or at least completely reorganized. That is, until the five-year projection is fulfilled, and the next phase of the deficit begins.
That's when the $8 toll will become a reality. And at some point it will be $10. But district officials won't cross that bridge until they come to it.
You can reach Ken Garcia at (415) 777-7152 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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