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.