Bridge district makes progress in long-term deficit

S.F. Examiner File PhotoSlash drive: The Golden Gate Bridge district sliced its 10-year-shortfall from $322 million to $285 million.

Slowly but surely, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District has begun to chip away at its once-cavernous budget shortfalls — enough to possibly delay a planned toll increase.

The district, which oversees maintenance of the iconic span and operates bus and ferry transit fleets, is projecting a five-year budget shortfall of $66 million. While that may sound daunting, it’s a stark improvement from the $87 million shortfall that the bridge district was forecasting last year. The 10-year shortfall also has shrunk, declining from $322 million to $285 million.

In 2009, the district adopted a strategic plan to erase what was then a five-year projected shortfall of $132 million. The plan called for a series of revenue-generating and cost-cutting moves, including reforming the district’s employee health and pension programs, adding a $3 toll for carpoolers, installing all-electronic tolling on the span and implementing a five-year series of planned fare increases.

“This is a great indicator for everyone that our strategic plan is working,” said district spokeswoman Mary Currie.

“We’re beginning to see some real progress in chipping away at our shortfall.”

The health and pension reforms were approved last year, along with the five-year fare increase program. The carpool toll took effect in 2010.

All-electronic tolling will begin in February. That plan’s estimated cost savings of $19 million over eight years wasn’t included in the district’s latest five-year budget projection.

The district’s strategic plan also called for a $1 toll increase on the Golden Gate Bridge for July 2013. Currie said the effectiveness of the district’s cost-saving and revenue-generating measures may have bought a little time before that increase is implemented.

“I can’t say for sure, but we might look into the possibility of pushing back that planned toll increase,” said Currie. “We will have to review our finances before determining that possibility.”

Motorists using FasTrak transponders currently pay $5 to cross the span. Cash-paying drivers pay $6.

The bridge district calculates its shortfalls by comparing its cost for operating expenses and capital projects with its revenue. The biggest current contributor to its shortfall is the district’s financial commitment to help pay for the $1.01 billion Doyle Drive rebuild.

Without its contribution to Doyle Drive, the southern approach to the span, the bridge district would face a five-year shortfall of $27 million and a 10-year shortfall of $207 million.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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