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From the Archives: Automobile toll eliminated on Coronado Bridge 20 years ago

Twenty years ago this week, the $1 toll to cross the San Diego-Coronado Bridge into Coronado ended. Bonds to construct the bridge had been paid off from toll revenue in 1986.

The final bridge tolls were collected at 10 p.m. June 27, 2002.

From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Wednesday, June 26, 2002:

After 33 years, it’s toll no more

Bridging the gap between San Diego and Coronado is free at last

By Jennifer Vigil, Staff Writer

The toll will end tomorrow, but the arguments won’t.

“The traffic can do nothing but increase with no toll,” said Ginna McDonough, a Coronado resident for most of her life.

Not so, says a commuter who takes the San Diego-Coronado Bridge daily. It might even flow more smoothly when motorists don’t have to pause at the toll booths.

“The truth is I think it’ll get a little better because it won’t bunch up around the toll booth anymore,” said Jeff Norton of Mission Hills, a contractor whose business is located here.

On and on it goes.

The end to tolls, done away with eight months ago by a vote of area mayors and city leaders, is something long opposed by Coronado officials who have fought to keep the fees in place for more than 15 years.

It’s welcomed, though, by commuters, who like the thought of saving a buck a trip, and largely taken in stride by residents, for whom the debate is old hat.

The final toll will be collected tomorrow, just before 10 p.m. and five hours after officials from San Diego, the Navy and the state make it official at a small ceremony at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort.

The toll-booth workers will walk off with little fanfare; transportation officials don’t want to cause a traffic hazard.

Then, just hours later, motorists will enter the city in the first free morning commute in the bridge’s 33-year history.

More than $197 million in tolls have been collected during that time, first in 60-cent increments each way, then, in 1980, as a $1.20 fee for southbound traffic entering the city.

Eight years later the toll dropped to $1; motorists who purchased a discount book crossed for 60 cents. Trucks paid more.

Tolls paid off $48 million in construction bonds. The debt was paid in 1986.

Several former government officials have argued that former Gov. Ronald Reagan promised that the tolls would end when the bonds were repaid. Others, mostly Coronado city officials, say no documents exist to support that claim.

Nonetheless, eliminating the toll became an increasingly popular notion, to the point that Gov. Gray Davis, apparently unaware that local officials regulated the fee, tried to do away with it in 2000.

After 1986, the toll was used to maintain the two-mile span and to pay toll collectors and manage the booths, eating up about half of the span’s nearly $6 million annual take in tolls.

It is thought about $2.8 million will have been collected this year when tolls end tomorrow.

The state predicts that after the tolls end more than 10,000 additional trips a day will be made on the bridge. Only Harbor Drive leading to Lindbergh Field and Mira Mesa Boulevard near the merge of Interstates 5 and 805 attract more daily traffic.

Coronado leaders believe the tolls should continue, to fund projects that might ease traffic.

Residents, however, appear generally unconcerned about the impending change, according to a casual poll of people at a city park and diners at three eateries.

Business people say residents are aware that it’s finally happening, but not talking about it much. Even Coronado council members differ as to the level of concern here.

“I think everyone is frankly terrified,” said Councilwoman Mona Wilson. “Every time I’m out in public all everyone wants to talk about is the traffic.”

Councilman Phil Monroe disagrees.

“We fought the good fight, we lost and it’s done,” he said. The councilman said he hasn’t received calls from constituents about the tolls or been approached in public on the matter.

The city is fighting a losing battle with traffic, which some residents blame on North Island Naval Air Station, one of the region’s largest employers. Others blame tourists, attracted to the city’s beaches and the Hotel del Coronado, a historic resort and a nationwide draw.

Some commuters, however, say City Hall should take a look at itself and the development that’s been permitted over the years, including the addition of two hotels and the Coronado Cays, a now 20-year-old neighborhood at the city’s southern limits.

“A thing that frankly has caused growth in traffic into this area has been the development in the community,” said Gene Severino, a longtime civilian employee at North Island and opponent of the tolls. “What you see going on here is not a result of commuters going to and from (the) bases that have been here for decades.”

SANDAG, the regional San Diego Association of Governments, has administered the toll for a decade and contends that eliminating the tolls will have little impact on the nearly gridlocked Third and Fourth streets.

In turn, Coronado says that without the toll there’s little impetus for motorists to carpool or to enter Coronado from the south via Silver Strand Boulevard.

Two Navy men, Maurice Roberts, an aircraft maintenance master chief, and Rich Killian, an aircraft maintenance officer, agree with SANDAG.

The San Diegans, who have worked at North Island in the past and will soon begin new stints there, believe most of their colleagues have used the bridge despite the toll.

“I doubt that anybody would drive around rather than pay the toll because it’s so far,” said Roberts, as he shared a table with Killian at an Orange Avenue pub.

Killian concurred. “When I first moved here, I thought I’d take the Strand, but it’s way too far away,” he said.

The toll booths are an issue as well. Some residents and commuters believe keeping them might make it easier to bring back the toll at a later date; others believe they make a vital traffic break at the curve onto Third Street.

A number of options have been submitted to the state regarding traffic flow and safety.

They include keeping the booths in place to act as traffic meters, installing separate meters and adding new traffic signals.

Most people are aware of the proposals. Few, of course, agree on which would be best.

“It’s an ongoing thing,” said Rick Chapman, who grew up in Coronado and now owns three businesses here. “What the solution is, I don’t know.”

Historical photos and articles from The San Diego Union-Tribune archives are compiled by Merrie Monteagudo. Search the U-T historic archives at sandiegouniontribune.newsbank.com



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