Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge

Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge

Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge

Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge


Since its opening in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge has become an icon for the beauty and prosperity of the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a symbol of engineering achievement. Constructing the bridge posed political and financial challenges that were at least as difficult as those faced by the project's builders. To meet these challenges, northern California boosters created a new kind of agency: an autonomous, self-financing special district. The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District developed into a powerful organization that shaped the politics and government of the Bay Area as much as the bridge shaped its physical development.

From the moment of the bridge district's incorporation in 1928, its managers pursued their own agenda. They used all the resources at their disposal to preserve their control over the bridge, cultivating political allies, influencing regional policy, and developing an ambitious public relations program. Undaunted by charges of mismanagement and persistent efforts to turn the bridge (as well as its lucrative tolls) over to the state, the bridge district expanded into mass transportation, taking on ferry and bus operations to ensure its survival to this day.

Drawing on previously unavailable archives, Paying the Toll gives us an inside view of the world of high-stakes development, cronyism, and bureaucratic power politics that have surrounded the Golden Gate Bridge since its inception.


An architectural masterpiece, the Golden Gate Bridge instantly evokes the natural beauty of northern California and the cosmopolitan pleasures of San Francisco. Tourists from around the world marvel at the scale of the graceful structure, the vision of the architects and engineers who designed it, and the bravery of the workers who built it. For generations, its towers have beckoned weekend adventurers to cross the milelong span; ominously, its low railings have also lured the despondent, suggesting an easy way to end it all. But for the commuters whose cars crowd onto its narrow roadway every workday morning and evening, the bridge represents something else entirely. To them, the agency that was created in 1928 to build the bridge and has collected its tolls ever since is as notorious as the bridge is beautiful. This is the story of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, the government agency that grew into an empire in the shadow of the bridge.

In 1994, a San Francisco Chronicle exposé explained some of the reasons for the notoriety of the bridge district, tracing its problems back to 1971 when the agency entered into the business of mass transportation. That year, the bridge district retired the last of its original construction bonds. Paying this debt had been its raison d’être for decades, and bridge district officials often evoked their obligations to bondholders to fend off attempts to dissolve the agency. Many San Francisco Bay Area residents expected that bridge tolls would finally be eliminated and the bridge incorporated into the state highway system, as campaign publicity promoting the bonds suggested in 1930. After all, the bridge district was wildly unpopular, and its officials were under fire for corruption, mismanagement, racism, and general imperviousness. Nevertheless, they managed to build a “transit empire,” taking on expensive new ferry and bus operations that ensured the agency’s survival. in 1969, the bridge district secured exclusive control over all modes of transportation from San Francisco to the north, raising bridge tolls steeply to cover operating expenses. This “bid for eternal life,” as one reporter described it . . .

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