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Coronadans Fear Free Passage on Bridge Will Still Take a Toll

Transportation: Fare is being eliminated on the span linking San Diego with upscale peninsula. Residents say it will make a bad traffic situation worse.


CORONADO — At 10 o'clock tonight--or very shortly thereafter--something will happen on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge that has never happened in its 33-year history: A motorist driving alone will cross the bridge into Coronado for free. Free.

And when he or she returns to San Diego, that trip too will be free.

After years of debate stretching from here to Sacramento, the 2.1-mile, pale-blue, curvilinear span over San Diego Bay is being dropped from that handful of California bridges that charge tolls.

Soon the city of Coronado--which prefers to consider itself an island, although it is actually a peninsula--will discover whether a long-anticipated civic nightmare becomes reality.

For years, Coronado officials fought the idea of dropping the $1 entry toll. They feared it would greatly increase traffic on the city's already car-clogged streets by removing the motivation of workers at North Island Naval Air Station, Coronado's main employer, to form car pools, which have crossed the bridge free since 1988.

Although long praised by aesthetes for its grace and melding of form and function, the span is the bane of civic life in upscale Coronado (population 23,000). Old-timers pine for the days when Coronado was accessible only by ferry from San Diego or by car from Imperial Beach along the Silver Strand.

The bridge "nearly ruined Coronado," said James Kenwald, a resident since pre-bridge days. "It turned a nice, quiet community into a racetrack. Now it'll just get worse."

To mollify residents, the county's regional planning agency, which has authority over bridge tolls, has promised to work to alleviate traffic congestion and find ways to slow down drivers who will no longer have to stop at a toll booth.

The bridge is from an era long passed: when San Diego legislators had major clout in Sacramento and the governor felt beholden to the city.

The bridge was approved during the reign of Gov. Pat Brown. That Brown's biggest political supporter in San Diego was tycoon John Alessio, then owner of the Hotel del Coronado and a major bridge booster, did not hurt.

When it opened in 1969, the toll was 60 cents each way. In 1980, that was changed to a one-way toll of $1.20, prompting local wits to suggest Coronado was the only local city with a cover charge. That was later trimmed to $1. The San Diego Assn. of Governments decided in October to end the tolls. The $48 million in bonds used to build the bridge were paid off in 1986. Once the kitty of collected tolls is depleted, the state will pay for bridge upkeep.

Although the bridge forever changed Coronado and the Barrio Logan neighborhood on the San Diego side, it would be wrong to say it dominates the skyline.

It was never meant to make a statement like bridges with famous names such as Golden Gate and Brooklyn.

Architectural critic Kay Kaiser says the bridge's true accomplishment is in being nonintrusive in design and color.

"It curves out and away from land and doesn't slam you in the face," Kaiser said. "It's hard to make that much concrete elegant, but they did it."

The toll-takers have all been offered other jobs in Caltrans, which controls the bridge. Tonight, they will gather for a sentimental remembrance of VIPs and others who have passed by the tollbooths--like President Clinton, who saluted; Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who waved; and Madonna, who did nothing.

The San Diego Assn. of Governments is having a party to watch the final motorist pay the final $1. The news media will be assembled.

There will be no celebrating at Coronado City Hall.

Coronado officials are concerned about an association study that shows use of the bridge increasing by 11,000 trips daily, to 90,000 trips, once the toll is no more. Already, the street leading from the bridge is the most heavily traveled in the county.

"We're concerned, and we're going to be watching very closely," said City Manager Mark Ochenduszko.

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