To justify expanding the power of the federal government and increasing the burden of debt on federal taxpayers, President Barack Obama has repeatedly lied about a peerless icon of America's pioneering spirit -- the Golden Gate Bridge.
"During the Great Depression, America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge," Obama said in his January State of the Union Address. "After World War II, we connected our states with a system of highways. Democratic and Republican administrations invested in great projects that benefited everybody, from the workers who built them to the businesses that still use them today."
Obama suggested here that the federal government invested in the Golden Gate Bridge. Elsewhere, he has used a royal "we" to seemingly credit the federal government.
"We built this country together. We built railroads and highways. We built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. We built those things together," Obama said on May 10 in Seattle.
"We were creating the conditions for everybody to be able to succeed," Obama said. "These things made us all richer. They gave us all opportunity. They moved us all together, all forward, as one nation, and as one people.
"And that's the true lesson of our past," Obama concluded.
But it is not true.
The federal government did not conceive of the Golden Gate Bridge. Or design it. Or finance it. Or build it. Nor did the state government of California.
The people of Marin, San Francisco, Sonoma and Del Norte counties, as well as parts of Napa and Mendocino counties, built the bridge. The Bank of America financed it by buying bonds approved by voters in those counties. And drivers who actually crossed the bridge and paid its toll provided the money to pay off those bonds -- a feat accomplished only 34 years after the bridge was completed.
The movement to build the bridge, Louise Nelson Dyble reported in "Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics and the Golden Gate Bridge," essentially started at a 1923 meeting convened by Frank P. Doyle, chairman of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. The movement crystallized when state assemblyman Frank L. Coombs, a native Californian born in 1853, pushed through legislation permitting the creation of a "special district" that Northern California counties could join if they wished for the purpose of building a bridge from San Francisco to Marin.
The special district was a corporation separate and apart from state and local governments. It was dependent on local voters for authorization, who in turn were responsible for guaranteeing its funding.
This differed sharply from the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, which would be funded by both the state and federal governments.
"In contrast," writes Dyble, "Golden Gate Bridge boosters were vehement about maintaining local control of the project. However, local control also meant local risk; even Coombs, the sponsor of the enabling act for the Golden Gate Bridge, remarked that its financing put a 'heavy burden on the small counties.' Also, the Golden Gate Bridge had little chance of winning state or federal assistance because the bridge district was structured to limit its accountability to other governments."
Dyble quotes a remarkable claim published in a report from the chief engineer for the project. "After the 40th year, the bridge having retired its bonds and accumulated the substantial surplus of 17 million-odd besides, will become free," said the report. "The user's tax of a toll bridge falls only on THOSE WHO USE THE BRIDGE. Thus the visitor relieves the local taxpayer and pays his pro rata cost of the improvement."
In 1930, Dyble reported, the people in the six counties that were part of the special district voted by the necessary two-thirds majority to approve a bond issue.
But that was just one year after the 1929 stock market crash. Who would buy the bonds?
As Kevin Starr wrote in "Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge," the special district looked into borrowing money from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corp., which had already provided $71.4 million in financing for the Bay Bridge. But that was to no avail.
"Enter Amadeo Peter Giannini, chairman and president of the Bank of America and the controlling presence on the Bankamerica syndicate that was considering the purchase of $6 million in Golden Gate Bridge District bonds necessary to begin construction," wrote Starr.
According to Starr, Giannini asked Strauss how long the bridge would last. "Forever," said Strauss.
But the debt incurred in building the bridge was not eternal. The bridge district paid it off in 1971.
Alas, as Dyble noted in her history, the bridge district then morphed into a mass transit agency that uses tolls imposed on motorists to subsidize buses and ferries.
Obama's repeated use of the Golden Gate Bridge as a symbol to justify his use of federal deficit spending to sustain a manifestly flawed vision for spurring economic growth is ironic because the building of that bridge is as much a symbol of local action and fiscal prudence as the bridge itself is an icon of architectural excellence and engineering prowess.
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