The toll to cross the Golden Gate Bridge will rise by a dollar today to $6, a cash total that is double the cost in 2002.
As officials in charge of overseeing the bridge can attest, more toll increases for motorists may be on the horizon if nothing is done to streamline the bridge district’s operations.
For the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, the increase makes crossing the bridge 33 percent more expensive than traversing the seven other bridges in the Bay Area. But the increase will also wipe out a five-year projected deficit of $91 million, the last vestige of an operating budget shortfall that stood at $454 million just six years ago.
To make ends meet, the district cut 21 percent of its staffing, instituted a hiring freeze, slashed service on its transit routes and reduced employee benefits over the past few years.
But a number of questionable operating procedures — namely the bridge’s reliance on toll revenue to support its transit fleet — threaten to create a vicious cycle of deficits.
The uphill challenge of keeping a balanced budget without consistently raising tolls has some politicians suggesting the bridge district needs an overhaul. District board member Charles McGlashan agrees that toll increases for commuters are imminent unless alternative revenue options are identified.
The cost of maintaining the Golden Gate Bridge district is not cheap: The agency is expected to spend $102.4 million on its buses and ferries next year — more than 60 percent of its operating budget of $164.2 million.
The Golden Gate Bridge district maintains a transit division that carries nearly 10.9 million riders annually between Marin County and San Francisco and employs nearly 500 people.
Employee salaries and benefits eat up a huge portion of those expenses. Of the $102 million dedicated to transit services, 67 percent is used to pay employees. Six bus operators earned more than $100,000 last fiscal year, according to district documents obtained by The Examiner.
General Manager Celia Kupersmith defended the bridge district’s transit operations and said the buses and ferries take away 13,000 cars daily from San Francisco streets.
How efficiently the district spends its money is also questionable. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — the organization in charge of Muni — carries roughly 27 times as many passengers each year than the bridge district. But at $474 million, the SFMTA’s transit budget is just 4.6 times bigger.
The bridge district’s sizable board roster — 19 members from six different counties — also places a small but noticeable burden on the district’s finances. Last year, the district shelled out more than $62,000 for board-member services, including $14,238 alone in expenses to Gerald Cochran, an assessor from Del Norte County, some 350 miles away from San Francisco.
By contrast, the SFMTA paid just over $16,000 in services for its seven board members last fiscal year.
What also makes the bridge district unique is how much of its tolls are funneled into transit operations.
New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, cited by numerous transit officials as an agency of comparison for the bridge district, obtains 13 percent of its operating budget from tolls.
The Golden Gate Bridge district earns 34 percent of its operating budget from tolls — nearly three times as much. That does not include the 9 percent the district is using from its reserve fund this year, according to the bridge’s budget analysis.
Leaders pitch solutions to revenue woes
With the constant budget problems faced by the Golden Gate Bridge district, one board member wants to reinvestigate advertising on bridge property, while another wants the district to control licensing of the iconic span’s image.
Board member Charles McGlashan, a county supervisor from Marin, said the district should go back and look into options of private funding, such as the Partnership Program proposed in 2007 that would allow for subtle advertising and product placement by corporations on bridge property.
Unlike many state agencies that can draw upon state and local tax dollars, the bridge district has just four funding sources: fares, grants, concessions and tolls. But even though the bridge advertising plan was expected to generate $3 million to $5 million annually, the bridge district abandoned the idea after strong public backlash.
San Rafael Mayor and bridge board vice president Al Boro, on the other hand, said he would like the district to gain more authority over licensing of the bridge’s image, which is used to sell millions of products each year. None of those profits currently benefit the district.
Regardless of how the funding is achieved, District General Manager Celia Kupersmith has vowed to avoid a repeat of the astronomical deficits that plagued the district earlier this decade.
“My goal as general manager is for that budget deficit to never build back up to where it was,” said Kupersmith. “I don’t ever want to be digging out of that hole.”
— Will Reisman
Cash toll history
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge
Bridge district operating budget expenses
$59M Bridge Division
$75M Bus Division
$27.4M Ferry Division
$2.8M Concessions and Visitor Services
Sources: Golden Gate Bridge, California Department of Transportation