Traffic was light on the Golden Gate Bridge on Wednesday afternoon following a multi-county shelter-in-place order. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Golden Gate Bridge officials seek emergency funding after traffic plummets 70 percent

Bridge district depends on toll revenue to maintain operations

A sharp drop in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge has left the district that manages it with a sudden cash flow problem.

Traffic on the internationally famous span has dropped nearly 70 percent during peak commute hours this week, according to bridge officials.

And that’s caused bridge tolls to drop by $300,000 per day.

The drop in funding is so precipitous that Golden Gate Bridge District Manager Denis Mulligan said bridge officials have joined BART leadership in asking government for emergency funding to sustain operations in the long-term.

BART ridership has dropped 85 per cent, leading to a $37 million per month revenue decline in fare and parking revenue, according to BART.

Mulligan said there is a bright side to the drop in bridge traffic: It means people are taking coronavirus, or COVID-19, seriously.

“What that means is people are respecting the shelter-in-place orders from public officials. That’s good news. It means everyone got the message,” Mulligan told the San Francisco Examiner Wednesday.

But, he said, “it does pose some challenges for us. Does it make us nervous? Sure.”

Roughly 22,600 autos sped through the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza on March 19, 2019, during the 5-10 a.m. commute, the bridge’s peak morning traffic. That dropped by 70 percent this past Tuesday, the first day of the six-county Bay Area shelter-in-place order, to only 6,700 autos in the same time period.

The Golden Gate Bridge is not alone in seeing a traffic dip: San Francisco saw a 34 percent rise in traffic speeds on its major freeways generally on Tuesday morning, according to the latest figures from traffic analytics firm Inrix, a major indicator that people are not in their cars commuting. The Examiner previously reported that other Bay Area bridges, like the Dumbarton bridge, have seen daily traffic fall, too.

Other Bay Area’s bridges are overseen and financed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority, a regional body,and managed by the state Department of Transportation. The Golden Gate Bridge, on the other hand, is managed by its own governing district and funded through its own toll operations, which are now threatened.

Some Golden Gate Bridge operations have already been trimmed to save money, Mulligan noted. For instance, the “zipper” movable barrier separating the northbound and southbound lanes is moved only in the evenings.

The City’s iconic bridge isn’t the only function of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District to take a hit. The bridge district also runs both a bus and ferry system between the North Bay and San Francisco, each of which have seen ridership drops, totalling $80,000 a day less in farebox revenue.

“We’re seeing a much bigger dropoff on the ferry side,” Mulligan said, which in turn means, “we’re using less boats.”

The Golden Gate Ferry system isn’t the only water-based transit suffering in San Francisco. The San Francisco Bay Ferry, which runs ferries between the East Bay and San Francisco, has also seen a plunge in ridership.

On Tuesday, February 25, the last “fully normal Tuesday,” there were 11,380 boardings across the SF Bay Ferry system. But Tuesday this week, there were only 484 boardings across the entire system, according to Thoma Hall, spokesperson for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, the oversight authority over the SF Bay Ferry.

“We do rely heavily on fare revenue to fund service, so the reduction in ridership has a major financial impact,” Hall said, Wednesday. “We’re working to ascertain how much of impact.”

Both systems have responded by heavily reducing their scheduled service.

Golden Gate Ferry temporarily suspended its weekend service between San Francisco and the North Bay until “further notice,” the district announced Wednesday. And on weekdays, the district consolidated separate ferry commuter trips between Tiburon and San Francisco, and Sausalito and San Francisco, to run between all three locales.

SF Bay Ferry reduced its scheduled beyond even its normal weekend service, which runs less frequently than its weekday service. SF Bay Ferry will not run service on the Richmond, Harbor Bay or South San Francisco Ferry routes until at least April 7, nor is it providing weekend service or service to Pier 41.

Both ferry services are also incurring extra costs due to an increased need for cleaning among coronavirus concerns.

The Golden Gate District’s operating and emergency reserves total about $25.4 million, and SF Bay Ferry’s budget reserves are about $8 million, which equals roughly two months of the district’s expenditures.

“This crisis has enormous financial implications for ferry service in the Bay Area, which has been a real success story with ridership doubling since 2012,” Hall said.

In recent years SF Bay Ferry had been amidst a major expansion in a bid to take the pressure off traffic-clogged freeways and packed BART trains.

Mulligan said the Golden Gate Bridge is maintaining staffing levels for “essential” services.

“That’s something we can sustain for a while, but at some point we will have to make some major decisions,” Mulligan said.

Golden Gate Bridge District board member Sandra Lee Fewer, who is also a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said The City needs help from the top to ensure needed funding for the Golden Gate Bridge.

“This is where the federal government really has to step in, we can’t do it alone, we are not the only community that needs help,” Fewer said. “Not only is it an icon throughout the world, it actually serves so many people in the Bay Area.”

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