Five years ago, the overseers of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge were facing a $454 million budget deficit. That figure was larger than the gross domestic products of East Timor, the west African country of Gambia, and the Independent State of Samoa.
Investigative reporter Thomas Peele of the Contra Costa Times decided to try and figure out how a bridge in the United States could amass a funding shortfall that dwarfed the economic output of entire nations. For one, he reported in a 2002 story, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District used money from the tolls paid by motorists to bankroll an expensive transit system that includes a network of buses in Marin County and a fleet of ferry boats that collectively cost millions per year to operate.
Peele also discovered that the bridge’s 19-person board of directors, some members of which live far from the Bay Area, spent more than $56,000 over a two-year period just to cover trips including meals, rental cars, and hotels to regular meetings at the Golden Gate’s administrative offices in San Francisco.
The embarrassed district promised reforms and vowed to get its economic house in order.
But five years later, we’ve learned, very little has changed.
The district touts its substantial cuts in overhead, insisting everything possible has been done to avoid raising the toll on motorists. But the Golden Gate Bridge District’s financial problems aren’t going away and the only solution the administration can come up with is perpetual toll increases.
Even that answer poses huge problems. The bridge doesn’t expect that the actual volume of toll-paying motorists, or the ridership on its buses and ferries, will rise in the near future at the same pace as its expenses, which are largely consumed by employee salaries, benefits, and other perks that the district’s hundreds of workers, including its board members, enjoy.
Public records show today that the district pays for health insurance for 14 of the (very) part-time directors. Last year alone, that insurance combined cost $48,000 even though several of the board members, including two mayors and four county supervisors, are already eligible for insurance coverage in their home counties.
The bridge district’s projections show vast deficits stretching off into the next decade and if the problem isn’t solved, a public transit system will be at risk. Riders, among them a high number of business commuters, make 9.4 million annual trips on Golden Gate’s transit system. If the fiscal mess continues unabated, the board will either have to hike tolls to larger numbers ($10, $15, $20?) or start cutting back on the buses and ferries.
The only alternative, says Golden Gate board member and San Francisco supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, may be to ask state lawmakers for the right to change the district’s charter so it can raise money a different way, such as through sales or parcel taxes.
But many of the board members, who benefit from the lucrative sinecure and the power of this bureaucracy, don’t want to take that risk. "Their fear is that if they go to Sacramento, no one’s going to ask them their opinion," Sandoval told us. "The end result is going to be some legislation that significantly changes the way the bridge is run."
BUY A BIB, SAVE A BRIDGE
Bridge officials say the projected deficit was a lot worse five years ago, before they instituted cost-cutting measures. The biggest cuts came in the form of eliminating nearly 200 positions, about a fifth of the workforce. The district also instituted a hiring freeze and forced workers to negotiate wage rollbacks and share more of the costs of their medical coverage.
Bus services from the district’s fleet of 200 were reduced by 22 percent in March and November of 2003, and taking a bus from Marin to San Francisco now costs 34 percent more than it did five years ago. The weekday fare for a ferry from Larkspur to San Francisco was raised a whopping 118 percent, and available ferry seats were reduced 23 percent by cutting trips. It can cost between $7 and $8 one-way to ride Golden Gate’s ferries and buses today.
But over the next five years, the district still anticipates its deficit will reach $91 million.
So after raising the toll five years ago, bridge officials want to do so again as soon as September. Motorists would pay $6 in cash, $5 if using a FasTrak prepaid device, and $3 instead of $1.50 for disabled drivers.
"It seems pretty clear that the [bridge’s] staff is driving the board of directors, and not the other way around, toward infinite toll increases," Sandoval said. "It’s a ludicrous idea, but that’s the only one they have right now."
Earnest bridge staffers point out in reports prepared for the public that they’ve implemented "revenue enhancements," such as putting out a donation box for visitors who might be willing to give up some pocket change and creating special sales programs at the gift shop.
Online trinkets for sale have even been expanded. At Goldengate.org you can purchase a piece of the bridge’s original cable for $175 or an $8 baby bib that reads "Golden Gate Bridge: Big, Strong and Awesome, Just Like My Dad."
But that’s not going to add up to $91 million.
Meanwhile, the anticipated deficit doesn’t even include capital projects like the nearly $185 million the district wants to spend overhauling and replacing its buses and ferries, or the $36 million it hopes to spend over the next 10 years deterring suicides, which are perhaps the second best-known feature of the Golden Gate Bridge after its aesthetic beauty.
And, of course, the bridge constantly needs repainting, thanks to the wind and salt air. "There’s more [required] maintenance on the Golden Gate Bridge than any other bridge in the country because of where it’s at…. It has to be looked after everyday by a crew of ironworkers and painters and whatever else is needed," said board president John Moylan.
The district’s largest operating expense involves paying the remaining 836 full- and part-time workers at the bridge and granting them fringe benefits like insurance coverage and supplemental pensions. This year alone salaries and benefits will cost about $100 million.
THE RED INK MOUNTS
About 60 percent of the district’s budget goes toward keeping its ferries and buses running, but key performance measures show that Golden Gate’s transit system does poorly in three crucial areas, including cost efficiency and effectiveness. When compared with national averages, Golden Gate Transit has one of the top five highest operating costs per "vehicle revenue mile" a barometer of efficiency out of the 150 largest transit agencies nationwide, making it more inefficient than BART, AC Transit in Alameda County, and the transportation authorities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, according to 2005 figures maintained by the federal Department of Transportation.
It’s common for transit systems to rely on government subsidies, and few environmentalists have sympathy for drivers who whine about toll increases from the comfortable interiors of their automobiles. Mass transit is the future of urban living.
"The Golden Gate Bridge may not be as efficient as other comparable systems," Sandoval said, "but if we abandon the investment we have made in mass transportation, it will really leave us with poor options in the years to come."
Alan Zahradnik, Golden Gate’s director of planning, adds that the bridge’s buses and ferries are dissimilar to other transit systems around the country because they tend to carry fewer commuter passengers over greater distances mostly during peak hours compared to transportation authorities like San Francisco’s Muni and AC Transit.
"It’s more expensive to provide suburban, fixed-route transportation," Zahradnik said.
Nonetheless, without an increase in the toll for motorists, the bridge expects to sustain annual deficits for each of the next 10 years until the red ink reaches $290 million.
So it would seem that if the district is asking everyone to tighten their belts, its board of directors should probably do the same. The extraordinarily large 19-member Golden Gate board contains more than twice as many directors as the seven-member board that oversees Muni’s trains and buses and the nine-member board that governs BART.
That’s a throwback to history. When the bridge district formed in 1928, several counties north and south of the span were asked to participate in the $35 million bond issue required to construct a road across the Golden Gate, and although the bonds were paid off decades ago, each of those counties still receives representation on the board.
"There have been attempts to topple the bridge district in the past, but they’re so hard-wired, it’s been impossible," said Susan Deluxe, a Tiburon resident and long-time critic of the district.
The list includes two counties located far to the north, Mendocino and Del Norte the latter bordering Oregon. But the board’s structure hasn’t been tinkered with since its formation.
When asked whether the far-flung board has outlived its usefulness, the representative from Del Norte County, Gerald Cochran, explained that the distant jurisdictions help diminish tension between the representatives from San Francisco and Marin, who frequently argue over who should contribute more to maintain the bridge. Besides, he said, Del Norte stepped up to help make the Golden Gate Bridge happen in the first place.
"It’s not what we do today," Cochran said, "it’s what we did 75 years ago to get this bridge built. We make our contributions."
The travel expenses of the two directors representing Del Norte and Mendocino counties were the highest board-meeting travel costs he found back when Peele first reported on the board’s budget $42,404 to cover trips from their home counties to San Francisco for regular board meetings over two years.
In 2002, bridge officials told the public that the district’s top-heavy administration would spend less along with everyone else to save money. The newest $6 toll was proposed "with the understanding that staff will continue to focus on finding internal cost savings," one staff report promised.
But that’s not exactly what new numbers we obtained from the district through a public records request show. Transporting distant directors to district meetings over the past two years cost more than $54,000.
Exasperated district staffers respond that travel for board members to conferences around the globe has already been trimmed and the number of regular meetings they hold in San Francisco were cut to save on the $50 stipends board members traditionally earned per meeting for serving.
A HEALTHY PERK
A majority of the directors receive health insurance coverage from the district, either Blue Shield or Kaiser a perk that few other part-time boards in the state offer. Last year, that cost $48,000.
But many of the directors already receive coverage from plans in their home counties. The bridge paid $1,200 last year to cover Mike Kerns; he is also a Sonoma County supervisor, where he’s on a second plan that includes life, dental, vision, and health coverage and costs taxpayers there about $63,000 annually, the clerk of Sonoma County’s board told us. Kerns was on vacation when we called his office at press time.
Board member Albert Boro receives health insurance through the bridge, but taxpayers in San Rafael, where he’s the mayor, pay an additional $19,000 annually to cover him there, according to figures provided by San Rafael’s city manager.
But Boro told the Guardian that the bridge coverage is "secondary and it’s only utilized when my primary doesn’t cover something…. It’s not a premium in the sense that it might be through the city [of San Rafael]."
Three San Francisco supervisors participate in the plan offered here for county employees, which annually costs taxpayers approximately $10,500 per person, according to the controller’s office. But the bridge also covers those individuals. The list includes Tom Ammiano, Jake McGoldrick, and Gerardo Sandoval and costs a total of $14,000 to cover all three of them, according to district numbers we requested.
Ammiano said the benefit could be done away with if it truly became a burden on the bridge’s budget. "That would take the will of the board," he said. "[Doing away with it is] not something I would be against, but I can only speak for myself."
Board director Bevan Dufty, also a San Francisco supervisor, declined to sign up for the coverage when he joined the bridge’s board in 2005.
"I had insurance and it seemed duplicative to me … I meet with people every day who don’t have insurance from all walks of life and so I felt fortunate," Dufty said.
Only about 12 percent of the 450 or so special districts that responded to a survey two years ago asking about health coverage said they offered such benefits to their directors or trustees, according to Neil McCormick, head of the California Special Districts Association. The group represents around 900 waste management, utility, fire, and recreation districts across the state. The Golden Gate district is not a member.
The real problem here is that after the district retired its bond debt in 1971, it never came up with an adequate revenue source to cover all of its operating or capital costs. Bridge officials never sought from state lawmakers a mechanism, for instance, to borrow money at a fixed rate, like school districts do.
So what will the bridge do in five more years? Nobody seems to know. According to San Francisco board member Janet Reilly, "That’s the $64,000 question…. There’s only so much toll tolerance among drivers."