DETOLL TALK:Coronado Bridge tolls threatened

July 2, 2000

DETOLL TALK:Coronado Bridge tolls threatened

Originally published in issue 50 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Jul 2000.


Subjects:detoll de-toll anti-toll

Facilities:Coronado Bridge 4th St Tunnel

Agencies:City of Coronado SANDAG

Locations:Coronado San Diego CA


Though it handles 78k veh/day it generates only $6m/yr in tolls and manual toll collection costs about half of that, and creates horrendous backups over the bridge in the morning rush-hours, especially when an aircraft carrier is mobilizing. There are only six manual toll lanes for three travel lanes – when the golden rule for manual toll collection has always been there should be a minimum of nine (three toll lanes per travel lane, given that a toll collector cannot be expected to handle more than 500 vehicles/hour compared to over 1,500 vehicles per hour per travel lane.)

Originally the bridge only had two travel lanes but a decade ago it was given a movable median barrier to allow three travel lanes in the peak direction, an effective innovation for the travel lanes, but calculated to increase pressure on the toll plaza. The pressure was reduced slightly by allowing HOVs to go toll free. They use a far righthand bypass lane around the toll plaza. Locals mostly pay 60c, the cost of a ticket bought in a book of 20, while occasional users pay $1.00. Tolls are only collected inbound to Coronado.

SANDAG’s board has been persuaded not to implement electronic tolling because this would represent a longterm commitment to tolls and there is strong sentiment for abolishing them. The objections, Scott says, are the backups at the toll plaza and the high cost of collection compared to revenues. There’s also the we’ve-paid-for-it argument.

“Reagan said it would be free”

Several prominent locals, some of whom were associated with the launching of the bridge project in the 1960s, say that pledges were made to remove the tolls once the bonds were paid off. Governor Ronald Reagan’s name is invoked as someone who “promised the tolls would go” once the original bonds were retired.

Scott says they have searched and never been able to find any documentary evidence of any such promises, but he says no one is going to challenge the assertions of those who were around at the time. [The Reagan-promise story is probably bogus because although Reagan was governor when the bridge opened in August 1969, all the tough decisions on its construction and toll financing were made under Governor Edmund (Pat) Brown. Also the major history “Coronado: the Enchanted Island” makes no mention of any pledges to end tolls.]

Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island is currently homeport to three Nimitz Class nuclear aircraft carriers and their planes. This is the cradle of US naval aviation. Glenn Curtiss developed the first seaplanes here personally leasing North Island field in 1911. They did the first plane-to-plane refueling out of Coronado in 1923 and it was the homeport to the US Navy’s first aircraft-carrier, the USS Langley in 1924. Lindbergh, Doolittle and other aviation pioneers flew from Coronado. The southern part of the island is home to some 30k people and Coronado Beach is one of the great Pacific coast beaches. Its focal point is the ‘Del’ (short for Hotel del Coronado) a late 19th century architectural extravaganza that has been a favorite of the Hollywood set and other rich guys for 110 years. The Marilyn Monroe film ‘Some Like it Hot’ was set at the Del. The prospect of the Santa Fe railroad completing a transcontinental terminus across the water in San Diego plus a love of the island and its wide white beach led Indiana entrepreneur Elisha Babcock to risk his fortune on buying and subdividing the peninsula and building a grand resort hotel.

Now cheek by jowl on just 14 square miles of Pacific coast peninsula are nuclear facilities and fuel storages, armories, a landing strip for anti-submarine planes, one of the world’s busiest naval bases, truck traffic, barges, tankers, and a busy toll bridge coexisting in great harmony with splendid beach front and a very classy waterfront community including one of the greatest resort hotels in the country. Nearby dolphins, whales and all manner of other fish and seabirds thrive. Surely a standing testament to the folly of contemporary environmentalism, and its misplaced negativism about mixed land use!


The navy on the north end and the rich on the south had Coronado pretty much to themselves so long as it was only accessible by ferry, or by a 25km (17mi) journey toward the Mexican border and around the south end of the bay and up the Strand as they call the narrow oceanfront isthmus that is its only natural connection to the mainland. Technically an isthmus or peninsula because of the narrow Strand connection to the mainland Coronado is colloquially known as an island because of its location across the Bay from San Diego and the tenuous nature of the land connection. In heavy storms, the ocean waves crash over the Strand into the Bay and there have been moves to dredge a Second Entrance to the Bay for shipping through the Strand. Also, the northern half of Coronado with the naval base was an island separated from the rest of Coronado by a shallow channel known as the Spanish Bight until 1944 when the channel was filled with dredge material to enlarge the base.

A bridge or tunnel linking Coronado to San Diego had been proposed as early as the 1920s to replace the slow and unreliable ferries but the project to build the present bridge got under way in the 1960s. The whole decade saw fierce arguments about whether a bridge should be built, opponents saying it would ruin the tranquility and isolation they liked, supporters saying it was essential to the island’s economy and naval base, and would be a boon to the island’s residents. The navy was against it.

The arguments raged but the pro-mobility forces, consistently supported by the CORONADO JOURNAL, the island’s major newspaper had more staying power and gained support in Sacramento. The California Toll Bridge Authority floated toll revenue bonds and built the bridge through 1968 and 1969, opening it Aug 3. It cost $47m to build. It is 3400m (2.1mi) long, about 2000m (1.2mi) of which is over water, the rest being an elevated approach from I-5, the major north-south motorway through the region. The bridge on about 30 pairs of concrete columns has a 59m (194') clearance over the Bay’s main shipping channel to US Naval Station San Diego making it one of the highest bridges in the U.S. It provides a spectacular view of San Diego and the island. The central span is 201m (660') one of the country’s longest steel box girder spans. Immediately after the shipping channel and hardly halfway across the water it curves 90 degrees from a southwest to a northwest heading on the slope down toward the island giving it an unusual hockey stick plan.

The bridge is now in the middle of a $100m seismic upgrade in which the pilings are being strengthened and many of the bearings and fastenings are being renewed. $33m of this is being paid by SANDAG out of a fund generated by toll profits, the rest from state funds. The original 30-year bonds that financed the bridge were paid off in just seventeen years – in 1986. Then it was decided toll bridge profits should be used to subsidize ‘alternative transport’ in tbe form of improved bus service, vanpool subsidies, a transport management association, and free ferry rides. Some of the ferry rides became a wasteful embarrassment. One 100-passenger ferry frequently sailed with two or three passengers, sometimes none at all, and the most heavily patronized carried little more than 100/day. The subsidies to ineffectual ‘alternative transp’ were discontinued last summer.

Tolls fund PB etc

Toll profits are now being used to fund $8m of studies of how to handle traffic coming off the bridge on Coronado. Immediately off the bridge is the toll plaza traffic, then straight ahead is 4th Street, a 4-lane local distributor. Gail Brydges of the city’s engineering department says 4th Street has a high accident rate as well as being heavily overloaded. 14 cross-streets intersect it at grade. Tourists turn off at Ocean Avenue, a grand boulevard with a wide median but the main peak hour traffic flows continue right on 4th to the main gate of the big navy base called North Island NAS. (The last segment is named McCain Boulevard after the famous Admiral McCain – father of Senator John McCain.)

4th Street Tunnel

PB is doing a feasibility study of a tunnel 2500m (1.5mi) in length from the Coronado bridge toll plaza to inside the gate of the North Island naval base. It would be built under the length of 4th Street and McCain Blvd. They are looking at a 2-lane reversible tunnel, driven beneath utilities, so avoiding surface disruption. But cost estimates are $165m ($33m/lane-km, $53m/lane-mi). Two way traffic would complicate ventilation and the reverse flow could use the surface streets. The city hopes to swing funds from the Navy, Caltrans and others. They don’t want to toll it.

Brydges says there is overwhelming local support for the tunnel project – 83% favored it in one vote.

“We want to incentivize people to use the tunnel,” Brydges says. She says the city of Coronado also wants to get rid of the toll on the bridge. Caltrans has apparently agreed to pick up maintenance and operations on the bridge to the extent of about $1m/year. Operation of the reversible barrier costs about $500k/year.

Craig Scott at SANDAG says the toll will remain on the bridge at least through July 2002 because the toll revenues are being spent on the Coronado tunnel studies. He’s doing some forecasting on the impact on traffic of eliminating the toll. About 2k more vehicles a day travel eastbound on the bridge than westbound – the toll direction – suggesting they take the Silver Strand isthmus route around the south end of the bay to avoid the toll.

Both Scott and Brydges say that eliminating the toll on the bridge by itself would exacerbate traffic problems on Coronado because at present the toll plaza meters entering traffic. There are also serious parking problems generated by visitors.

If they can swing state and Navy grants for the tunnel as well as the bridge, there won’t be any tolls in the future on Coronado. If the Navy is into spending money on a tunnel, they’d probably be better off studying a tunnel direct to the naval base under the Bay to north of downtown San Diego in the airport area, bypassing the bridge. This is America’s largest Pacific naval base, with facilities for up to five large aircraft carriers at Coronado (the supporting warships are based on the mainland side.) If there’s money to spend on upgrading road connections in the Pentagon’s budget wouldn’t it be better spent giving the base a second crossing – to make enemy saboteurs’ mission far more difficult – rather than alleviating surface traffic in local streets?

If local politicians cannot swing grants from Washington DC and Sacramento they’ll be looking for a revenue stream. Some pricing system tying together the bridge, the new tunnel and parking would then seem worth study. (Contact Gail Brydges, City of Coronado 619 522 7814, Craig Scott SANDAG 619 595 5326)

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