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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A splendid blend of narrative political history and political science theory based mostly on deep archival digging, newspaper research, and interviews. . . . Dyble indicts the Golden Gate Bridge and Tunnel Authority for its arrogance, corruption, and self-perpetuating administration of the bridge."—Journal of American History

"Urban historian Louis Nelson Dyble lays bare the politics, scandal, corruption, and arrogance that mask what she calls the bridge's 'mythic proportions' and 'heroic beauty'. Dyble's work is not a deconstruction of the bridge itself, but rather an intriguing exposé of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District. . . . Her telling of this experience is useful for any emerging scholar seeking to unravel the intricacy of public policy debates. It can be an uncomfortable, awkward, suspect, and thankless task, but Dyble's book shows the benefits when one prevails."—Journal of Historical Geography

"An important contribution to the study of business history. . . . Louise Nelson Dyble recounts the history of a special district, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District (aka the Bridge District), which was created to build and service the debt for financing the Golden Gate Bridge."—Enterprise and Society

"Dyble possesses a firm grasp of current scholarship, drawing upon work written by historians, political scientists, and legal scholars. Her in-depth discussion of special districts during the course of the twentieth century and how they played out is itself worthy of the price of admission. . . . Paying the Toll has, unquestionably, added an invaluable chapter to historical scholarship. It is deeply researched, very well organized, and well narrated."—Pacific Historical Review

"Dyble's account is complex and in many instances compelling. . . . What might have been an expose of corruption and greed assumes greater power as an assessment of power and policy. Because she writes so well and draws effectively from the archives she managed to penetrate, her argument is both clear and compelling."—Journal of Planning Literature

"In this magnificent gem of a book, Louise Nelson Dyble takes the reader from the dark corners of avaricious public officialdom and smoke-filled rooms to the bright vistas and architectural wonder of the Golden Gate Bridge itself. At once steward of the public interest, notorious bureaucracy, and gateway to northern California, the Bridge and Highway District emerges in Dyble's telling as the center of a multilayered history of the state. The bridge and its legacy have found their historian."—Robert O. Self, Brown University

"Not merely the history of one particularly unresponsive and incompetent government agency that managed to survive—even thrive—despite decades of public discontent and organized opposition from influential politicians and business leaders, Paying the Toll provides us with greater understanding of the institutional structure of American government. A must-read for everyone concerned about our fragmented public sector and its difficulties confronting the demands of the twenty-first century."—Gail Radford, author of Modern Housing for America

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812222784
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/10/2014
  • Series: American Business, Politics, and Society
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Louise Nelson Dyble teaches history at Michigan Technological University.
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Read an Excerpt

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 mile-long 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, made the bridge district indispensable to the Bay Area and transformed the agency "from a relatively simple toll-taking operation to a smug transit authority so impregnable that it has spurned all attempts to reform it." Twenty-three years later the bridge district had three major divisions, a $77 million budget, and a staff of 900. According to Chronicle editors it was a "hydra-headed oddity" and an "agency run amok."

Chronicle editors also blasted the bridge district board of directors for its lack of accountability and skewed composition, which heavily favored the residents of small northern California counties over the many toll payers of San Francisco and Marin. They pointed out that the nineteen-member board was a "bastion of white men," with only five women and one minority member. Many of the directors were political appointees, occupying their posts for decades or even inheriting them across generations. Local activists called the insular agency "the last vestige of bossism," and "a perfect example of the type of self-perpetuating, inaccessible, obsolete, fiscally abusive bureaucracy we're increasingly subject to as citizens." Reporters cited charges of inefficiency and extravagance, including high salaries; the Golden Gate Bridge general manager earned 20 percent more than the director of the California Department of Transportation, who was in charge of nine toll bridges as well as many other facilities. To make matters worse, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the San Francisco district attorney were investigating bridge district officials for "bid-rigging, skimming, contract improprieties, and financial illegalities."

Even as they cataloged a wide variety of transgressions at the bridge district, Chronicle reporters suggested that the fame and beauty of the bridge actually obscured the offenses of its officials. They speculated that the bridge itself was a "technical achievement so daring that it has all but overshadowed the institution that runs it." Over the course of bridge district history, journalists, politicians, and activists have instigated dozens of official investigations, grand jury hearings, reform bills, audits, refinancing drives, and even a few resignations. Still, bridge district scandals seem to fade quickly in the public consciousness, regardless of the size of the headlines they inspire or their importance to the Bay Area.

Contemporary bridge district culture provides some clues to the reasons for this obscurity. I made my first inquiry about bridge district records in 1997, and discovered that its officials guard its resources and history from outsiders. When I explained my research interests and asked to view some of the district's early files, the bridge district public relations officer met my request with prohibitive insurance requirements, claiming that the agency could not accept liability for my presence at its offices. The bridge's history had already been written, I was told, and it was available at the toll plaza gift shop.

This unexpected response heightened my interest in the bridge district. The Golden Gate Bridge was the only span in California managed by an independent local agency, and the records of other state-operated toll bridges were easily available in a variety of public libraries and archives. I discovered that the California Public Records Act makes very clear provisions for access to bridge district records and accommodations at its facilities, even naming the agency specifically. Armed with new determination and knowledge of the law, I resubmitted my request. This time, bridge district officials informed me that they simply did not have the manpower or the budget to accommodate research—and that district vaults were "not libraries." The public relations officer described the records that I was requesting, perhaps thinking it would deter me: hundreds of boxes of unknown materials in several locations had not been moved for decades. They would require significant time and expense to sort, and an attorney would have to review all documents before I saw them. This only encouraged me; not only did a large cache of untouched historical records and unknown secrets beckon, but also governmental transparency and accountability were at stake. After appealing directly to the directors individually and fending off demands that I agree to "approval" of anything I wrote, I was finally allowed to inspect bridge district records more than a year after my initial request.

Installed at a desk in an old modular building near the toll plaza, I faced the daunting task of sorting through more than three hundred boxes of documents, reports, correspondence, and a variety of other disorganized and deteriorating materials dating back to the 1920s. Some had been stashed and forgotten in a damp paint tunnel within the bridge itself and were brittle, moldy, and dusted with rust from staples and paper clips. Many of the records were moved to a private storage facility soon after I began research, where they were slightly more accessible and much better preserved. Nevertheless, they often seemed to disappear after my initial inspection if I requested them again. In the end, I was presented with material vastly exceeding the parameters of my original request, perhaps in the hope that its sheer volume would dissuade me. Making sense of it was a formidable job that stretched on for months.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: "Agency Run Amok"
1. A Bridge to Prosperity
2. A District Divided
3. The District and Its Enemies
4. The Defeat of the Golden Gate Authority
5. Rapid Transit Versus the Golden Gate Bridge
6. James Adam, Boss of the Golden Gate Bridge
7. Regionalism, Transportation, and Perpetual Tolls
Conclusion: Subsidies, Suicides, and Sensitivity


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