Part of the Bay Area News Group

when tolls were expensive and life was cheap

By enelson
Tuesday, November 21st, 2006 at 5:20 pm in Bay Bridge, ferries, Funding.

bay-bridge-1935-suspension-tower-construction1.jpgPolitical reporter Josh Richman, who reported the Supreme Court’s glorious decision that I no longer have to stay up nights worrying that the blog might erupt into a defamatory flame-fest, apologized that he had been hoarding several slabs of paper on the Bay Bridge.

Exhibit A was a California Research Bureau Timeline of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Seismic Retrofit: Milestones in Decision-Making, Financing and Construction, commissioned by state Assembly Joint Legislative Audit Committee Chairwoman Wilma Chan, D-Oakland.

The first thing that struck me was that President Herbert Hoover appointed a commission to investigate the feasibility of  building the existing Bay Bridge in 1929. The bridge opened in 1936 — seven years and one month later!

At the time, they had perfectly serviceable ferries plying the Bay. There was no concern that an existing structure would collapse in a big earthquake, as there was after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. I.e., there was no rush.

It’s been 17 years since a section of the Bay Bridge’s eastern span upper deck collapsed, killing one motorist. If the current schedule holds (and I don’t fault anyone for doubting it), the new eastern span will open nearly a quarter-century after the need presented itself.

But the timeline was a bit thin on the original bridge, and upon further research, I learned that the idea of bridging or tubing the Bay had been a serious subject of debate since the 1870s. It wasn’t until about 1926 — 10 years before opening — that a commission was established to connect the East Bay with San Francisco.

And the quick work Chief Engineer Charles Henry Purcell made of the bridge — three years and four months — came at a high cost. Twenty-four workers were killed during the project. So far, no deaths have been reported on the new eastern span’s skyway project. Not too many injury reports, either.

And now that I’ve got you warmed up, here’s another interesting fact: The original bridge toll was 65 cents.

Before you start bemoaning the $4 it’s gonna cost you come January (if you pay cash) or February (if you have FasTrak), consider this fact from the weighty document that was unearthed this morning: Converted into 2004 dollars, the round-trip toll for the bridge in 1936 was actually $17.86.

So pay your $4 and be thankful, but most of all, be patient.

Photo of 1935 Bay Bridge construction from

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

9 Responses to “when tolls were expensive and life was cheap”

  1. CHP Reformer Says:

    The Oakland Tribune should investigate how the California Highway Patrol, working with courts from Alameda County to San Luis Obispo, use the “Inxotilyzer 5000″ in DUI breath-test, a device which a study shows actually OVERESTIMATES a suspects’ blood-alcohol level by up to 27 percent.



  2. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Keep in mind that the original toll was collected in both directions. If the toll was $0.65 in each direction, that is the equivalent to $1.30 if the toll were collected as it is now, in only one direction.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I guess I should have made that clear: The $17.86 calculation was based on two trips, east- and westbound, totaling $1.30, as you say. However you figure it, $4 in 2007 is a lot cheaper than $1.30 (or even $.65) in 1936 dollars. I’d love to know the 1936 equivalent of the $1 toll paid as recently as 1997, when the state legislature approved $2 tolls.

  4. John Spencer Says:

    I read this column in today’s SM County Times. Your arithimetic seems a bit off in two places. First, you write that 1936 is “five years and eleven months” later than 1929. Even January of 1936 would be six years and a month later than December of 1929, and that’s the extreme case; the median would be seven years. (” Hoover appointed a commission…in 1929. The bridge opened in 1936–an unthinkable…five years and 11 months later!”)

    Worse, you indicate that it has been 15 years since Loma Prieta; in fact, it’s been 17 years and 2 or so months. (“…after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake…It’s been 15 years since a section of the Bay Bridge’s eastern span upper deck collapsed…”)

    Perhaps this is nitpicking, but you name the dates and then tell us the time span incorrectly.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    John, this is a blog. It thrives on nitpicking. Furthermore, your nits are well worth picking, and I am deeply humbled that you caught my haphazard attempt at math. I have fixed the numbers accordingly.

  6. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    There are people driving across the bridge who were not born when the bridges were converted to one-way tolls.

    My uncle ran a gas station about the time when the bridges were being built. He told me that gasoline was 4 cents a gallon. He paid 2 cents a gallon, taxes were 1-1/2 cents, and he made 1/2 cent per gallon. What is remarkable is how high the tax was then compared to the taxes on gasoline now, 37.5% versus about 24% now.

  7. South Bay Resident Says:

    A gas tax 0f $0.015/gal in 1936 would be worth $0.20 today. Actual gas taxes are around $0.565 (including the sales tax on gasoline). So gas taxes are higher. However, 1936 is before the Federal gasoline tax was introduced to pay for the Interstate system, so it is reasonable that gasoline taxes are higher. As a side note, you must be paying more for gas than I am because the gas I bought this morning was taxed at a 29% rate (yes, I actually calculated it)

    On the bridge tolls, the $1 toll in 1997 would have been worth $0.09 if collected in 1 direction or $0.045 if collected each way.

  8. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    $0.015 is 37.5% of $0.04. So by your own calculation, gas taxes are lower now than they were in the 1930’s as a percentage of the price of gasoline.

    The comparative value of the dollar now to the value of a dollar then is nothing more than speculation. After all, if we were to use the same conversion factor you used for the taxes, gasoline would cost about $0.54 per gallon today. I bet you paid more than that for the gas you bought this morning!

  9. Keith Lichten Says:

    Not only were tolls more expensive on the original bridge, but heavy rail contributed to bridge income. A portion of train riders’ fares over the bridge was paid as a toll–2.5 cents per passenger, each way. Of course, that revenue source is not available with the current Transbay Tube BART model.

Leave a Reply