For today’s 80th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, we asked urban historian Louise Dyble for her thoughts on the bridge and the district that oversees it. In 2009, Dyble uncovered much of this little-known history in her important book Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
By Louise Dyble
As one of the great icons of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge endures. So does the agency that built it, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. Perhaps the more significant anniversary this year is not the bridge’s opening day in 1937, but rather the retirement of its construction bonds. It has been 40 years since motorists paid for the bridge, and now their tolls support an expansive North Bay transportation empire.
Using tolls to pay for buses and ferries is a great way to manage congestion and support transit, but the history of the special district that operates the bridge reveals that there are other vital interests at stake. Paying the Toll told the story of how bridge district became a powerful obstacle to regional planning. Its officials’ desire to protect their power and jurisdiction—and more than anything, to continue to collect tolls—hindered efforts to establish an integrated regional transportation system and to effectively manage growth in the post-World War II period.
Today, the question of regional transportation and land use planning is just as urgent as it was back then. Over the last decade, the Bay Area has experienced remarkable growth, and with it traffic congestion, pollution, escalating housing costs, and widespread displacement. Better regional transportation needs to be coordinated with affordable, accessible housing yet there is still no regional agency able to meet this challenge. Instead, transportation policy remains decentralized and disconnected from land use planning. The bridge district continues to operate alongside dozens of independent local transportation agencies that compete for funding. And Bay Area metropolitan planning organizations remain ineffective. Currently, they are undergoing a chaotic reorganization, and their weak planning proposals reflect uncertainty about their future.
Uncertainty also means opportunity. Visionaries at SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) are leading a broad effort for a new, more democratic approach to regional planning that can effectively address urgent problems. The history of the agency that operates the Golden Gate Bridge reveals some of the most significant obstacles today’s planners face—some of the same obstacles that hindered regional advocates forty years ago. Hopefully that history can also help guide the Bay Area toward a future in which the image of the Golden Gate Bridge represents innovation, equity and cutting edge environmentalism in one of the greatest urban regions of the world.