Paying the Toll: A Political History of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, 1923-1971

Article, Preprint English OPEN
Dyble, Amy Louise Nelson (2003)
  • Publisher: eScholarship, University of California
  • Subject: Social and Behavioral Sciences

This dissertation traces the history of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District from its inception in 1919 through its reorganization and expansion in the early 1970’s, examining its influence on the physical landscape and government of the San Francisco Bay Area. Although the agency came under fire for mismanagement, extravagance, and a lack of accountability almost immediately after its incorporation, its representatives nevertheless steadily increased its independence and power. Defending the interests of the bridge district, they mobilized its substantial autonomy and independent resources. The bridge district was instrumental in the defeat of a comprehensive regional transportation authority that threatened its autonomy in 1958; in 1961 it stopped the extension of rapid transit from San Francisco to the North Bay which would have reduced its toll revenues. By the late 1960s, the bridge district was at the nadir of its public image and its dissolution with the retirement of the last of its construction bonds in 1971 seemed certain. In 1969 it won state authorization to expand its operations to include transportation. Two years later it had unquestioned control over all major bus and ferry routes between the North Bay and San Francisco. The survival of the agency was ensured when it took on mass transportation obligations. The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District is an example of a regional special district, an institutional form that proliferated in metropolitan areas across the United States in the twentieth century, part of the rise of modern bureaucracy initiated in the Progressive era. Its history reveals the practical mechanisms by which these public corporations influence the policy and politics of urban areas. Exploring the concept of institutional agency and its implications for the history of metropolitan area government in the United States, this study asserts the importance of the organizational characteristics and internal dynamics of government organizations. The corporate structure of special districts is central to understanding their power; once in existence, they develop their own constituencies, interests, and independent agency.
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