The price of gold

Keepers of the Golden Gate Bridge want another buck from motorists, but that won't fix the long-term problems -- including an outsized and costly board of directors
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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.

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