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Making the Golden Gate an even bigger attention span

The agency that operates the iconic bridge is looking for ways to close a deficit without raising tolls. One idea: Give visitors a chance to do more than just drive, walk or bike across the landmark.

December 29, 2009|By Maria L. La Ganga
  • The agency that operates the Golden Gate Bridge is looking for ways to close a deficit without raising tolls. One idea: Give visitors a chance to do more than just drive, walk or bike across the landmark, which will mark its 75th anniversary in 2012.
The agency that operates the Golden Gate Bridge is looking for ways to close… (Chip Chipman )

Reporting from San Francisco — Benigno Rodriguez, in town for the holidays, has it all figured out.

For an elevator ride to the very top of the Golden Gate Bridge's international orange towers, 746 feet above San Francisco Bay, the Madrid native would shell out five bucks.

For a chance to tour the famed structure's catwalks beneath the busy roadway, he'd pay another $5. And to climb the sturdy but delicate cables? "Ooh, la, la!" Rodriguez said as he walked the bridge, camera in hand. "Ten dollars."

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the cash-strapped agency that operates America's second-longest -- but arguably most beloved -- suspension bridge is seeking ways to fill its five-year, $132-million deficit without increasing tolls in the near future.

One idea under serious consideration is to give bridge lovers from around the world a chance to do more than just drive, walk or bicycle across this graceful city's most famous landmark and charge them amply for the opportunity.

"People get pretty nuts about this bridge, and if you have a behind-the-scenes tour -- albeit on a catwalk -- people would be jazzed," said Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. "It's the idea of going somewhere where no one's been before, sort of the 'Star Trek' thing."

The district's inspiration is the Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb, a guided trek along Australia's answer to the Golden Gate. Since 1998, 2.4 million visitors have paid for the chance to clamber 440 feet above the scenic Southern Hemisphere waterway.

The concession runs 24 hours a day, and the priciest climb is a dawn excursion at around $250. The Sydney climb's website boasts that the experience can help cure acrophobia. Climbers are hooked to the bridge by a protective line and are required to take an alcohol breath test.

The Golden Gate transit district has begun accepting so-called statements of qualifications -- applications from companies that are interested in the possible bridge concession in which they offer proof that they have experience running a safe, tasteful venue on "an iconic structure of worldwide renown."

To gauge their interest, district officials have reached out to the companies that operate the tours in Sydney and at the Eiffel Tower and the Kennedy Space Center. The application period ends Jan. 26, and the district hopes to make a decision about moving forward by the end of February.

Even without an opportunity to get up close and personal with the bridge, tourism officials say the Golden Gate is the city's No. 3 attraction, behind Fisherman's Wharf and the historic cable cars. District officials estimate that a bridge concession could raise around $9 million per year.

But hopeful concessionaires face some stiff challenges.

"They've got to be sensitive to the status of the bridge as a historic facility, understand our function as a transportation link and find ways to make things [work] for this purpose," Currie said.

More than 39 million cars traverse the bridge each year, and maintenance is ongoing. Whatever attraction -- if any -- ended up on the bridge could not interfere with either enterprise.

Two years ago, bridge officials caused an international uproar when they proposed a corporate sponsorship plan that they hoped would raise $4 million annually.

Currie said no actual advertising was planned for the bridge itself, and no company would have been allowed to rename the span. Logos or advertising would have been low-key, she said, and might have included a recognition wall or trash can and bench ads.

But the response was fast and furious. A group called San Francisco Beautiful led the charge, damning such an effort as "desperate and pathetic," said Milo Hanke, president of the group's board. And, he added, "it doesn't bring in enough money."

In addition to possible tours, the district plans to again consider some kind of sponsorship program to help bridge the deficit.

Hanke said his group would fight any such plan, but the possibility of tours "sounds exciting in a way."

"If it enables more people to enjoy the bridge, we're for that," he said, "but we do not want to allow corporations and advertisers new ways to insinuate themselves into the bridge."

If the bridge district does decide to move forward with a tour proposal, it might try to time the kickoff to coincide with the bridge's 75th anniversary in 2012, Currie said.

Still, it's a little early to start planning. Officials aren't even sure what parts of the historic structure they would open to the public or what they'd allow visitors to actually do.

"Cable climbing is not our No. 1 interest right now, although it could happen in a phase down the road," Currie said. "Bungee jumping is out for sure."

Too bad. Because James Dent, an elementary school principal from Prunedale, Calif., who was hiking the bridge with his family before Christmas, would really like to bungee-jump above the bay.

And he'd pay $75 to do it.

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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