Garcia: No cake for Golden Gate Bridge's 70th? 

Just imagine, a magical 70th anniversary for one of the world’s most beautiful structural icons, and all you get is a lousy T-shirt.

Oh, maybe an ornament too. And an engineering book. How’s that for your big party favors?

The Golden Gate Bridge officially turns 70 on May 27, an occasion that seems fitting for a rather raucous or at least large celebration for one of the world’s greatest engineering feats — the suspended jewel that transforms the bay in the Bay Area. But if you’re hoping for fireworks, a musical gathering or spontaneous line dancing, you are going to be hopelessly disappointed. For the agency that controls the landmark and its costly transportation arms is treating the 70th as it would the 53rd or 67th — you know, like one of those random, inconsequential calendar dates.

So why no cake, no ceremony? The official word is that it’s a matter of bad timing, fiscal realities being what they are. The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District has a budget that is bleeding international orange, and agency officials don’t think it’s a swell idea to throw attention on the span while they ponder yet another toll increase.

"We’re in the middle of a budget crisis and we want to stay focused and not throw a party right now,’’ said Mary Currie, longtime spokeswoman for the bridge district. "But we still anticipate that there will be a lot of people out here that weekend.’’

Yet nothing like the 800,000 or so people who jammed the bridge and its arteries on that magical day in 1987 when it became the site of an international party and the center of worldwide attention. Agency officials won’t say, it but it doesn’t take much to figure out that they don’t want to invite another free-for-all like they had on the 50th anniversary, when an estimated 300,000 people stood on the bridge and caused it to flatten, triggering an outburst of flop-sweat among its leading engineers.

Instead they’re giving a straight-faced, by-the-book account of the accounting, which solemnly notes that the bridge district is looking at a $87 million deficit over the next five years and every conceivable method of raising money is being looked at save for plastering advertising on its majestically golden cables. And the betting money is that there will likely be a toll increase because as befits its stature as one of the most beautiful bridges around, it’s also been one of the more costly, due in part to its structure and the agency’s self-imposed decree that it serve as a Cadillac-level transportation agency in hybrid-level times.

Currie said the agency is hopeful it can go into 2008 without a toll increase and that it’s hoping to raise needed funding through "partnership’’ programs. But alternative funding programs for an agency running an annual deficit have been looked at for years, and so far the primary source of funds has come from the pocketbooks of car users, who have complained mightily over the years about just for whom the bridge tolls.

Still, it is rather curious that the bridge district would try to make such a noteworthy date so low-key to the point where it’s hardly considered anything beyond a commemorative T-shirt to note the anniversary. Currie said the agency is also planning a release of a new book on the bridge, written by her and two of the bridge’s chief engineers, Frank Stahl and Daniel Mohn. It’s too early to tell if "The Golden Gate Bridge, Report of Chief Engineer, Volume 2’’ will have a wide audience besides civil engineers and bridge buffs, but as a geek who has a poster of the bridge’s original schematics on the wall of his office, I can say it has some personal appeal.

Yet most people tend to think of a 70th birthday as a big deal, since they never quite know if they’ll be around for the three-quarter century mark. Officials at the bridge district are confidently counting on that. And I suppose there is some solace in the bridge’s expected longevity, since we pay dearly tokeep her upright and as healthy looking as a new paint coat will allow. But as if they needed another reason to not throw a big party, Currie notes that the bridge’s upcoming anniversary will coincide with Memorial Day weekend, with all of its traffic craziness and coinciding party fever.

"We’re working on a lot of other projects,’’ she said. "People can celebrate the 70th anniversary in their own way. Some people might be disappointed and some people might be relieved.’’

But there’s no denying the anticipation over the 75th anniversary. The bridge’s engineers are probably already losing sleep over that one.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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