SAN FRANCISCO -- Golden Gate Bridge officials are hoping the hordes of visitors who meander across the landmark span's footpath to gawk at Pacific Ocean sunsets or videotape San Francisco's skyline next year will be inspired to generosity.
The agency that operates the bridge is preparing to install voluntary donation boxes for pedestrians this spring as one of several paths to climb out from an expected $236 million shortfall over the next five years.
Fewer drivers are crossing the 1.2-mile suspension span in the sour economy, and the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District still doesn't know whether the federal government will defray the $388 million cost of retrofitting the span against an earthquake.
The district, which also operates buses and ferries, isn't alone in feeling the pinch -- transit agencies across the country are hard up for money.
A $2 toll hike earlier this year, which makes a ride from Marin County south into San Francisco $5 for most motorists, also isn't raising enough money to balance the budget.
Thus the public appeal.
District officials aren't quite sure what the collection boxes will look like, or how they'll collect the money. Spokeswoman Mary Currie said they're envisioning some sort of booth that will explain the bridge's maintenance costs and discuss its history.
Currie said she was not sure how much money the trial project will raise, and said the district will analyze the results after a year to decide whether to continue. The district is working with bicyclist coalitions from both San Francisco and Marin County, hoping cyclists donate to avoid a formal toll.
Currie downplayed the donations, saying they are "just a minor blip in the radar screen in terms of our long-term financial plan."
The district also is cutting spending and may install parking meters at bridge visitor lots, rent bicycles and audio bridge tour headsets or request federal homeland security funds, she said. A Golden Gate Bridge credit card or license plate fund-raising program are other possibilities.
District officials have tossed around the idea of charging a pedestrian toll for months, but public outcry from cyclist groups and other local bridge users put the idea on the back burner.
Some district officials have likened the donation boxes to panhandling.
But a donation seems reasonable to Gena Heldreth, a retiree from Fairmont, W.Va., who is planning a trip West this spring with her husband and two cats in their Winnebago.
"It's one of those things that's kind of a national treasure," Heldreth said of the bridge. "They do that at a lot of different places, like museums."
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