Tracking the Transit Taliban

Our intrepid correspondent David Fear dives into the hot-blooded passions of fervent anti-toll protestors and the politics of the Golden Gate Bridge District.

For Whom The Bridge Tolls

Tracking the Transit Taliban

By David Fear 
Published: July, 2002

I’m slowly creeping across the Golden Gate Bridge towards Marin County, cursing myself for somehow forgetting about the bridge’s legendary rush hour crawl. The steady pace of 5.5 mph seems too much for some of my fellow drivers, who begin honking their horns and shaking their fists at the sky, the bridge, and yes, dear readers, even each other (!). I tap my fingers impatiently on my steering wheel while the motorist directly to my right screams out various obscenities about the mothers of his neighboring commuters, mine own included (for the record, she is a very, very nice woman.). The cars in front of me lurch to a halt, and then slowly continue to inch forward towards what seems like our only beacon of hope: the light at the end of the MacArthur tunnel.

The supreme irony of it all is that being stuck in this less-than-ideal northward trek over the beloved and beleaguered bridge is causing me to be late in attending a public hearing that will help decide the landmark’s fate over the next few years. The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, the bridge’s managing agency, is operating under a severe budgeting deficit and projects a $441 million dollar shortfall in the next five years. In order to combat operating that severely in the red, the District’s finance committee had proposed a number of ways of cutting costs including hiring and salary freezes, charging for bridge and ferry terminal parking, scaling back its post 9/11 security costs, and/or raising bus and ferry transit fares.

What seems the most likely route to get approved, however, is the reason for tonight’s public hearing and the center of the latest controversy to dog Marin’s maligned transit bureaucracy. The committee also submitted 12 toll increase options to make up the revenue difference, including charging a fee for those who walk or bike across the bridge or instating a two-way bridge toll (there is only a toll for southbound lanes entering into San Francisco). The current darling is Toll Option G: Raise the bridge toll from $3 to $5, with monthly FasTrak passes (the electronic toll system) increasing from a $3 to $4 a crossing. And even this moderate increase, it seems, is too much for some to stomach.
The story started out for me, as so many stories do, with an innocent phone call. I was minding my own business, surfing the Internet for pornography, when I realized that insistent ringing wasn’t my tinnitus acting up. It was my editor on the line, in his usual state of manic agitation.
“Did you read today’s paper? Have you heard about the public hearing for the Bridge toll tonight?” he asked.

“Yeah, for the increase, right?”
“Exactly. You need to cover it. But be careful, the ‘Transit Taliban’ will be there!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, picturing a host of San Rafaelites in chadors. “The who?”
“These Marin residents who don’t want the toll to be increased because it means they can’t drive their gas-guzzling SUVs.”
“Oh, c’mon!” I said. Hell, I wasn’t a North Bay native and I drive a 10 year-old Mitsubishi Precis, and I didn’t like the idea of having to shell out an extra two bucks every time I felt like heading to Novato. Who am I, a DuPont?
“You’ll see what I mean. I’d go, but I think there would be a lynching. Check it out tonight. You can’t miss these people. They’ll be the ones burning an effigy of me out front.”
For those of you who are wondering what the fuss is about, here’s a Reader’s Digest history of the who, what and why behind the toll hike:

The Golden Gate Bridge District was formed in the 1930s when the residents of San Francisco, Sonoma, Marin, Del Norte, Mendocino and Napa counties decided to support a bond issued for the construction and maintenance of its namesake bridge. The bond was eventually paid off by 1971, but two years prior, the state legislature had granted the district an added responsibility of handling public transit needed to reduce growing bridge traffic congestion. When the committee first developed their bus and ferry transit system in the mid-1970s, it was estimated that 30,000 people in 20,000 vehicles crossed the bridge daily. Twenty years later, the number of commuters had risen by 5,000; the number of vehicles, a mere 900. Both the bridge’s ongoing maintenance and the transit programs are primarily funded by transit generated revenue…and bridge tolls.

The current $3toll used for southbound drivers crossing the bridge was instituted in 1991, and reports at the time showed that the toll would cover the expenses needed for about five fiscal years. Eleven years later, the incremental rise of inflation in the Bay Area, expensive projects such as ongoing earthquake retrofitting and the need for increased security in today’s volatile national climate has seen costs rise and revenue returns diminish. Money was needed to close the gap, and despite promises that the toll wouldn’t be raised, an increase seemed the only answer.

Not everyone agrees on that last point, however. Many local residents already felt that the District has outlasted its need and outstayed its welcome, pointing to unsubstantiated allegations of mismanagement, insular political skullduggery (board members are appointed rather than elected), rigging bids for bridge reconstruction and padding both their record books and their wallets at the public trust’s expense. The proposal that tolls be increased, thus charging commuters to help fund public transit systems they don’t use directly, was deemed a final straw. Others feel that the District has done a decent job but that the state-run California Department of Transit, or CalTrans, as it is commonly referred to, should assume the managerial reins as it has with the Bay Area’s seven other bridges. Still others felt that a separate, privatized transit system should control the bridge’s public transit system, leaving bridge-generated revenue out of it entirely and letting economic Darwinism take its natural course as to whether the buses and ferries would flourish or be finished.

All this figured prominently when the District members announced that, after several open houses and prior to deciding on a final course of action, a public hearing was announced for the evening of June 13th. The public and the low-level politicians were meeting in the name of democratic dialogue to discuss the pros and cons in a civilized manner. The resulting affair, at times, wouldn’t have seemed out of place at a WWF smackdown.

I’d already missed the opening remarks when I pulled into the parking lot thanks to snail’s pace I’d been required to keep, and was about a hundred yards away from the door when I started to hear the yelling.

“…and I’ve submitted several requests to see who exactly is getting these passes to cross the bridge for free, and my requests have repeatedly been denied, and what do you all have to hide?” A resounding roar of approval from the crowd. “I mean, when I finally got to view a list, some of the entries just listed an address…no name! So I want to know who exactly gets these passes, and why they seem to last for an indefinite amount of time, and uh, I want an answer!” More cheering. I sensed moral high ground being scaled, but didn’t hear any mention of the toll. Was I at the wrong place?

No, the woman at the entrance confirmed as she handed me the Xeroxed agenda sheets, this indeed was the public hearing. Open forums around volatile issues such as this one tend to get heated, and when the first public speaker of the night decided not to attack the toll hike so much as the District itself, a tone was set for most of the evening: Yelling. Indignation. Outrage at the way the Bridge District conducted their affairs. Accusations of mismanagement, corruption, graft, the rich stealing from the poor. District members present and accounted for (several members hadn’t been able, or didn’t bother, to show up) merely adopted a stoic, somewhat aloof silence in response to the hurled invectives. What could they say, I wondered, as one speaker would step down, and the next speaker’s name would begin to rail away. Rinse, then repeat…I could see my editor’s joke about lynching didn’t seem that far off all of a sudden.

It was then that I began to see the people my editor had colloquially and colorfully dubbed the “Transit Taliban,” the well-to-do Marinites and their upper-middle class soccer mom counterparts looking ready to rip into the flesh of anyone expecting them to fund public transit. Some carried large picket signs declaring a love for CalTrans, whom many present thought was a one-stop shopping solution to all of the Golden Gate’s funding problems. That spending deficit…hey, that wasn’t their problem! Just turn over the bridge to CalTranss, and whoosh! Problem solved. One gentleman, who to his credit later spoke quite eloquently and calmly regarding his anti-toll bias, held up a sign which simply read “$100,” framed by the universal symbol for “no” (a circle dissected by a slash). Was there another proposal I was unaware of that suggested the toll be raised to $100 per car? Did he not like $100 bills? I was confused.

Of course, the toll’s opposition wasn’t relegated just to the screaming, mewling self-righteous nouveau riche. Many anti-toll proponents brought up fine points, such as the effect of such a raise on the lower-middle class families commuting from the South Bay, or the disincentive of North Bay residents to support, say, San Francisco’s family-friendly Fort Baker museum and its ilk. But the voice of reason often took a backseat to the voice of the angry mob, many of whom were ready to raise their voices at the slightest hint of disagreement.

Woe, woe be unto those whose opinions don’t jibe with the “voice of the people,” lest ye be booed! One gentleman, still clad in his bike-riding gear, championed both the toll raise and the boost he hoped it would give to supporting a non-automobile, more environment-friendly alternative…he could barely finish his sentences before he was drowned out by cries for his head. Another gentlemen responded to the notion of decrying the toll since the bridge was paid for (a popular argument) by quipping “Just because your mortgage is paid doesn’t mean the utility company will keep your lights on, or the plumber won’t expect money for fixing your toilet.” He then suggested that a $5 toll wasn’t enough…the boos were near-deafening. Democracy, I was reminded, can be an ugly business when you take the road less popularly traveled.

The sad fact of the matter is, it won’t be enough. The financial reports show that, even if Toll Option G does go into effect, the Golden Gate Bridge won’t be in the clear; the increase will reduce the $441 million debt to a mere $6.8 million in the next five years, but that still translates to a lack of proper funds needed. The fact that the toll isn’t going up to $8, the current toll of most New York bridges and the necessary amount for financing the completion of retrofitting, among other things, and is only increasing by two dollars (with FasTrak likely to only move up a buck!) while the Bay Area economy nosedives and inflation rates rise sky-high, should be seen as the compromise, and bargain, that it is.

Of course, if one is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, one can deduce that many of Marin’s residents, living in one of the wealthiest counties per capita in the United States, are less opposed to giving up a few dollars than the principle of the matter. As a woman at the hearing pointed out: “This really boils down to two issues: Who should be paying for public transit and who should be managing the bridge?”

Good point, especially since an estimated 45% of toll revenue goes to transit expenses. So let’s address the former question first. Who should be paying for public transit? Those who benefit from it: Transit riders and the commuters. It is a “social” benefit, and anyone reading this who may have crinkled their nose as thoughts of welfare and New Deal-era bailouts traverse through their mind needs to rethink their stigma attached to the phrase. Even casting aside the obvious environmental benefits of having fewer cars on the road, everyone using the Golden Gate Bridge benefits from having a transit system.

Bridge commuters don’t feel that they should have to subsidize a transit program of buses and ferries that they, as drivers, aren’t personally using. But let’s look back at those numbers regarding traffic growth of the last 25 or so years, drivers: Marin’s public transit system has lowered the number of cars traveling across the bridge significantly, curbing what could have been gridlock epidemics of epic proportions. As an alternative to clogging the bridge daily with an extra thousand or so vehicles, you’d think commuters might be willing to support such a small contribution (especially when you consider that a sales tax and a gasoline tax, both voted down by Marin residents, are the usual financial modus operandi for such programs). Fares should also be raised to reflect the fiscal need, undoubtedly; but to act as if public transit has nothing to do with your commute is voluntary blindness.

Which brings us to the second question: Who should be managing the bridge? A tricky question, that, but not an unanswerable one. Calls for the Bridge District to be disbanded and for a North Bay Transit association to be formed were rampant at the public hearing, as were the call to arms for CalTrans to wrest control of the national landmark. The Bridge District may in fact be reaping the benefits of political cronyism, as many have contended, though investigations of the group have brought up nothing substantial to hang them on. And, as Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia so colorfully pointed out, it may still suffer from an “anachronistic structure…a group overly reliant on lawyers, lobbyists and political connections” (Congratulations, Mr. Garcia…you’ve just described virtually every corporate and political entity.)

But, in order to support disbanding the Bridge District, a feasible alternative must be dredged forth, and none seems to have been brought to light as of yet. The idea of CalTrans taking over the Golden Gate Bridge may seem ideal in concept, as they are already responsible for the maintenance and management of the Bay Area’s other bridges and notable transit systems. But pundits seem to be arguing that the District is an inefficient bureaucracy…how will turning the Golden Gate Bridge over to an already overworked, overtaxed bureaucracy (let’s not forget they also maintain our highways) not renowned for its efficiency, improve either its management or its state of being? The states of the other bridges currently under CalTrans designation run the gamut from passable to downright dodgy. Those decrying the current state of the bridge’s retrofitting plan, think how long it would take if CalTrans were at the helm. You’ve just left the frying pan, and the fire isn’t far behind.

As a state-run CalTrans bridge, the Golden Gate would be subject to the toll standards set by the Metropolitan Transit Committee (MTC), an even more put-upon bureaucratic entity. Those decrying that the Golden Gate Bridge is a national landmark and should be treated as such with federal subsidies (fact: State and federal subsidies are already granted to the Bridge, and it is still operating in a deficit) should be cringing at the idea that it would be another in a long line of projects vying for attention and treatment. And those of you that think the MTC would never hike the toll up to $5, think again; as they suffer under the same financial crunch that all local agencies suffer from, a toll hike to cover growing expenses and costs is all but inevitable.

Driving back home to San Francisco after the hearing, the fog enveloping my head regarding certain aspects of the toll debacle seemed to clear just as I was entering the literal fog of my hometown. My drive to Marin in traffic took me ten to fifteen minutes longer than usual; one can only guess how much longer I would have been stuck in traffic had transit not been available. Of course, had I taken transit to get there, I would have had to catch a ferry to catch a bus to drop me off several blocks away from my destination, and that in and of itself realistically could have taken hours. Clearly, the Golden Gate transit system needs to have its various kinks worked out so that it becomes a feasible and timely alternative instead of a pipe dream.

Privatization, wherein transit “would live and die on its own feet,” to quote a hearing speaker, is not the answer. Nor is the ability to just throw a pile of money the cure-all for the system’s problems. Strict guidelines need to be set for transit reform, and an institution that has the public trust can do so. Rather than disbanding the Bridge District, and substituting local control of the Golden Gate for the tortoise-like mechanics of a larger put-upon entity, the District should retain control and members should be voted in like most public servants, shaking off the veil of “old boys country club” and taking on the mantle as an institution run for the public, by the public.

Transit fares must go up to help shoulder the burden. FasTrak fares need to stay at $4, keeping car-commuting an economically viable option for those who simply must use their cars as a form of transportation. And cold, hard facts must be faced by both sides: The Bridge District’s reputation as a self-interested “fat cat” haven needs to be repaired so the public can get behind them, and the public must realize that a lot has happened in 11 years. Including, unfortunately, the need for a toll hike.

As I approached the tollbooth window on my way home, I opened my wallet to pull out my last five-dollar bill. As I took my change back, I realized that if the proposal had passed and gone into effect, I would be dead broke. But then I thought about the drive I had just taken, and how, minus a bridge at all, it would have been nearly impossible to make that meeting at all. If paying a slightly higher fare means not bidding the Golden Gate Bridge a fare-thee-well, then I would have plunked down the few extra bucks (or better yet, reminded myself to get a FasTrak). It would have been money well spent.