Golden Gate Bridge War on Ferries

By Robert L. Harrison and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

This lightly edited article comes from the website of the Anne T. Kent Room at the San Rafael Civic Center library:

PHOTO COURTESY OF SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY  The ferry Sausalito approaches its home port

PHOTO COURTESY OF SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY

The ferry Sausalito approaches its home port

The August 27, 1937 Sausalito News bore the headline: “Bridge Income Drops; Directors Decree War on Golden Gate Ferry.”  The Bridge District’s Board was concerned that competition from the San Francisco-Marin ferries would reduce traffic on the bridge.  Shortly after the May 1937 opening of the Golden Gate Bridge to traffic, the District’s attorney reported a 12 per cent decrease in bridge traffic following reduced ferry fares.

The Golden Gate Bridge was constructed using the funds from a bond measure passed in 1930 by the voters within the Bridge District’s six counties.  The $35 million bond measure was very popular with the electorate; it passed 145,057 in favor and 46,954 against.  Despite the election results the opposition continued to hinder sale of the bonds.  In 1932 a committee of Bridge District officials, including Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss, appealed directly to A. P. Giannini, chairman of the Bank of America.  Gianni pledged his bank’s support and with it building the bridge was assured.

In the 1930s the Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors worked to maintain the project’s financial viability.  They sought every means possible to assure maximum use of the bridge in order to bolster toll revenue.

The attorney reported to the District Board that the Railroad Commission had created a “deadly situation” when it permitted ferry fares to be cut by 50%.  Prior to the fare reduction both the bridge and the ferry each charged a round trip fare of $1.00 per auto. The Railroad Commission cited three factors for its decision to permit a reduced ferry fare: Ferries allow a diversion from the long, steep bridge approach [Waldo Grade] that add to the expense for heavy vehicles; the ferries provide an alternative service for drivers who cannot afford to pay a higher fare; and, the ferry system should be preserved to be available in time of emergency on the bridge.

As reported in the Sausalito News the Bridge District’s attorney proposed two courses of action: “…one is to reduce bridge tolls to the ferry level or lower. This will result in a ruinous rates war, which might make it necessary to go [to] the taxpayers for additional funds.”  The Board directed the attorney to take a second approach and go to the Railroad Commission for a rehearing and, should it become necessary, appeal the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Bridge District tested an experimental round trip toll of just 50 cents per auto for a ten-day period in December 1937.  The lower toll resulted in the bridge serving more than 95% of the total crossings during the trial period, proving the bridge could put the ferries out of business if the rate war continued.

The Golden Gate Bridge war on the ferries ended in February 1938 when the ferry authorities offered a compromise.  The ferries would raise their round-trip fare to 65 cents per auto if the bridge toll for trucks would be set at $1.00 per round trip.  The Bridge District ultimately won the war on the ferries as the proposed compromise produced insufficient revenue to maintain north bay ferry service. The Southern Pacific Golden Gate Ferry Company’s Sausalito-Hyde Street and the Tiburon-San Francisco direct service ended on July 24, 1938. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) ferry ended all remaining Marin-San Francisco service on February 28, 1941.

In 1938 on the first weekend after the automobile ferries stopped running, the bridge experienced a significant increase in traffic climbing from nearly 50,000 to 56,000 vehicles.  In most years since 1938 traffic on the bridge has continued to increase.  The bridge’s annual totals grew from 3.3 million crossings in 1937-38, the first full year of operation, to over 41 million annual vehicles today, a greater than 12-fold increase.   Yearly toll revenue in the same time span experienced an even greater growth from $1.6 million to over $143 million or nearly a 90-fold increase.

By the mid-20th century, growth in traffic and congestion on the bridge led to a search for ways to increase bridge capacity.  While the structure’s physical configuration limited the possibilities, the scope of bay crossings could be expanded by the District developing its own public transit systems.  To achieve this goal, a portion of the increased bridge toll income has been used to fund the Golden Gate Transit (GGT) bus service and the Golden Gate Ferry (GGF) system.  In 1970, in contrast to its earlier war on ferries, the Bridge District began operating its own ferry service from Sausalito to San Francisco.

The GGF service later expanded to include Marin County terminals at Larkspur in 1976 and Tiburon in 2017.   Service was also added in 2000 offering direct ferry connection from Larkspur to the San Francisco Giants ballpark.  Annual use of Golden Gate ferries is currently over 2.5 million passengers.  Estimates show GGF use combined with the GGT bus patrons represent about 30% of the total number of bay crossings from Marin to San Francisco in the morning commute hour.  Today the District is no longer at war with ferries as it was decades ago but is the sponsor of crucial transportation services that include ferries.