The Interview: To Preserve and Protect

with Janet Reilly

Photo courtesy of Craig Lee

It’s the most famous bridge in the world. So famous that an estimated 10 million people a year, from every corner of the planet, come to marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge’s beauty and grandeur. And there’s one man who is caretaker in chief.

Denis Mulligan is the 10th general manager and CEO of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. In addition to the bridge, the district manages the second-largest public ferry operation in California and the Golden Gate transit buses, shuttling riders between the North Bay and San Francisco.

Prior to assuming his current role in 2010, Mulligan was the district’s chief engineer for nearly a decade. His knowledge and love of the bridge is vast, having explored almost every inch of the majestic structure over the last two decades.

I sat down with Mulligan in his office, with its sweeping views of the Bay, the bridge and the cars zooming through the toll plazas. Our conversation ran the gamut, including the engineering feat it took to build the bridge 85 years ago, what it takes to maintain the iconic structure and some of the urban myths surrounding it.

Meet Denis Mulligan.

I’m sure you have been asked this many times, but how does one become the CEO of the Golden Gate Bridge?

Luck and timing. There is no substitute for that in life. I’m an engineer by training and was hired as the chief engineer [at the bridge] 21 years ago. The prior general manager, Celia Kupersmith, was fantastic. She was a total transit junkie and left to build subways in Seattle. In a weak moment, the board selected me [smiles].

How big of an engineering feat was it to build this bridge in 1937?

Nothing we do today compares with the original construction of the bridge. They didn’t have calculators. They didn’t have computers. They didn’t have huge cranes like the big Left Coast Lifter that built the new San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. We have the original calculations in leather binders locked in a vault in this building … they’re hand calculations, where one person did them and another person checked them. And there’s no erasing. They crossed out mistakes and corrected them.

That’s incredible!

It was a tremendous achievement from an engineering perspective. They had to come up with a new way to figure out how to analyze the stresses or forces in the towers because they’re so complicated. It was just amazing what they did.

I love how the bridge is always changing in the weather, the time of year. Today, I couldn’t see the bridge for several hours and now it’s revealed.

We hear a lot about the chief engineer of the bridge, Joseph Strauss, but less about the architectural team of Morrow and Morrow, who were instrumental in building the bridge. Tell me about them.

The architect for the bridge is listed as Irving Morrow. It was a two-person firm, a husband and wife [Gertrude Comfort Morrow], and she never is given any credit. But if you have a two-person firm in any industry, you’re always collaborating, you’re always talking. And it’s unfortunate that, in that era, no women worked on the construction of the bridge. And even though it was a Morrow and Morrow firm, Irving Morrow received all the credit, though I find it completely implausible that it wasn’t a team effort.

We can’t imagine the bridge being any other color than International Orange. It’s so perfect. What’s the story behind the color?

The color is a good story about life because there was a huge debate about what the color should be. The Navy thought there should be yellow and black diagonal stripes on the towers, like an old barber shop pole, so it would stand out. They were scared the bridge was so big, planes were going to fly into it. People thought it should be gray, like the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Some said green. And the arguments ensued. Eventually, they started building the bridge and they brought out the steel from Pennsylvania, and it had a red lead primer on it, which was a burnt orange color. People looked at the color of the primer and said, “Wow, that’s it.”

There are many beautiful bridges throughout the world. What makes this bridge so iconic?

A couple of things stand out compared to other bridges. One is the scale, and one is the setting. The Golden Gate Strait was a beautiful location before the bridge was built. And all too often, humankind constructs things — we take a beautiful site — and we make it worse. Well, this is one of those instances where the built structure actually, I would argue, made the beautiful site even more beautiful. And then part of it is the scale of the bridge. It’s a long bridge. The towers above the roadway are twice the height below the roadway. They taper as they go up, so it’s got very elegant and delicate dimensions to it. And then, an interesting thing is they had this old historic Civil War–era fort. It would’ve been cheaper to knock it down, but they built an arch over it, which is this little ornament on the south end of the bridge. They did it to preserve the fort for future generations.

What do you love most about the bridge?

I love how the bridge is always changing in the weather, the time of year. The hills start off green in the wintertime, they obviously dry out, the fog comes in, the fog leaves. Today, I couldn’t see the bridge for several hours and now it’s revealed.

Your office, where we are now, is essentially on the bridge. What are some of the most unusual things you’ve seen sitting here, looking out your window?

Once there was a horse trailer coming across the bridge. It stopped at the toll plaza, and there was a kicking sound, and an ostrich that was in the back got out. I saw it running on the roadway and one of our laborers with a lasso [was] trying to catch it. I’ve seen deer on the bridge. … About two years ago, after the horrific death of George Floyd, there was an incredible expressive activity here. There was a Black Lives Matter protest, where the bridge filled up with people. And it was just amazing to see so many people come here for a common purpose, peacefully, to express how they feel about something.

What’s a typical day like for you?

There is no typical day. My former bridge manager once said, “Two-thirds of what’s going to happen any individual day is stuff that walks in the door you never saw coming.” And there’s a lot of truth to that.

What’s the biggest challenge of your job?

Probably the variety of different things that happen with our bridge, bus and ferry business. But recently, COVID has been a tremendous challenge, because while we’re a government agency, we’re like any business impacted by the pandemic on many levels. Our customers went away. Overnight, we saw a 70 percent drop in bridge traffic. Overnight, we saw a 99 percent drop in ferry ridership. And overnight, we saw about a 90 percent drop in bus ridership.

Where’s commuter traffic now?

Overall, bridge traffic over a course of a week is down about 15 to 20 percent. But the morning commute, 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., is still down 30 percent. So people are going out and about to get together with friends, to go to a Warriors game, to go to a Giants game, but they’re not going into the office. … We’re slowly rebuilding.

I’m happiest when … I’m with family.
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken is … I don’t take risks. I do, I guess, but I’m not uncomfortable in the decisions I make or the things I do.
My biggest regret is … I don’t have any regrets. I don’t.
If I had a magic wand, I would … have the suicide barrier completed yesterday.

Most people think of your job as running the Golden Gate Bridge, but you’re actually running a major transit agency, which is quite complex.

Certainly in life, we demonstrate our priorities by how we spend our money. By that yardstick, the bridge district is really a transit district. And we spend most of our money on buses and ferries. We’re really in the customer service business — whether you are riding your bike across our bridge, driving on the bridge, riding our bus or boat, we want to make sure it’s a first-class experience. Our buses have high-back, upholstered seats; overhead lights; and Wi-Fi. Our ferries zip past traffic on the water. Our sidewalks are spotless.

Why and how did the bridge district get into the transit business?

When they built the bridge, they estimated that traffic could grow every year, and their estimates were met and then some, so congestion was a mess in the late 1960s. There were discussions: “Should we add another deck on the Golden Gate Bridge and put freeways all across San Francisco, and pump more cars into the Financial District? Or should we get in the transit business?” And the legislature wisely said, “Let’s get into the transit business.” There were no ferries, hadn’t been for 50 years in San Francisco Bay. We got into the ferry business and we took over Greyhound’s bus business. They were abandoning it. And before COVID, during the morning commute period, 24 percent of all trips from the North Bay into San Francisco were on our buses and ferries, taking thousands of cars off the streets of San Francisco every day. I think those were wise decisions.

One of the things I really admire about you is your relationship with workers. Talk about your leadership style.

I think a lot of leadership is showing up. We have a very talented workforce and we all have important jobs. I know that any success that I might achieve is only achieved because of all of their efforts. A long time ago, I was a carpenter in Carpenters Local 22. I have tremendous respect for people that carry tools, that do the jobs that they have to show up for. So during the pandemic, I showed up every day. When my crews at the bridge were going through the temperature screening station, I went through it with them. I think it’s important for them to see that, and that the boss isn’t hiding out in a bunker someplace.

You grew up in San Francisco in a large Irish Catholic family. Tell me about your childhood, including any early memories of the Golden Gate Bridge.

My parents were immigrants from Ireland. They taught us to work hard, to make ourselves useful, and to get an education. My parents didn’t have access to education when they grew up in Ireland, so they instilled that in all their kids. One of my fondest memories is — I worked always — I had a newspaper route. And the last was on 28th Avenue between Taraval and Pacheco. And when I got to Pacheco, I could see the bridge.

Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge lasted from 1933 to 1937. A year before its completion, a worker stands on the north tower, which is 746 feet tall, and looks out toward the south tower and San Francisco. | Photo courtesy of Highway And Transportation District

We all love this bridge, but it does have a dark side. It’s the number one destination for suicides in the world. As we sit here, a suicide barrier is being constructed. Tell me about that.

Building a suicide barrier on the bridge is a large public infrastructure project. And large public infrastructure projects take political will and money. For the longest time, the community didn’t talk about suicide. Going back a generation or more, it was brushed under the table. And that’s unfortunate. A lot of people have died at the Golden Gate Bridge. Over time, it became a magnet for suicides, and things start becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. But kudos to the advocates [for a barrier] and our board of directors for working together and talking about suicide.

When we started the environmental process, suicide was the third-leading cause of death for young people in our country between the ages of 16 and 24. Today, it’s the second-leading cause of death. Suicide is growing as a problem. So we need to talk about mental health issues. You see it on the streets of San Francisco every day, but you only see a little snippet of it. There are a lot of people that you may work with, that you may socialize with, who have mental health struggles. It’s important that people talk to each other if they think someone’s struggling.

It is important.

Where suicide barriers have been erected, where easy access to lethal means have been taken away, the suicide rate goes down. You save lives. Studies have been done of people that attempted suicide at the bridge that were not successful. And well over 90 percent of them are still alive 10 years later. Most people that attempt suicide, and are unsuccessful, never try again. … A lot of people have a bad day. Some high schooler broke up with their girlfriend. They get beat up on social media. They think the world is ending and they make a decision that you can’t take back if it involves jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or a weapon. [The barrier] will save about 30 lives a year. There’s no more noble task for government, or any organization or entity, than saving lives.

And what is the structure that you’re building?

We’re building a net. It’ll be on both sides of the bridge. It’ll be down about 20 feet. It’ll stand out horizontally about 20 feet. It’s stainless steel wire boat netting, like the wires that hold up a mast on a sailboat. And then every 25 feet, there’s an arm that levers out that holds up the netting. Where nets have been erected thus far, they’ve been almost 100 percent successful.

When will the project be finished?

End of 2023. If you go to the north end of the bridge, there’s a trail head parking lot on the west side. You can look out and see over 1,000 feet of netting.

In the meantime, what’s being done?

We have staff on the sidewalks. Last year, 223 people came to the Golden Gate Bridge to hurt themselves; 198 were stopped and taken off the bridge by our staff working with partner agencies. And sadly, 25 people died by jumping off the bridge. Generally, it’s about 30, but last year, 25 died. So we stopped about 85 percent of all people.

If I have a bad day, I take off my fancy suit, pull on my boots and jeans, get a harness and a hard hat, and I go explore the world’s greatest jungle gym.

There are a lot of urban myths about the Golden Gate Bridge. Let me ask you about a few, and you tell me if they are true or false.


Painters start painting the bridge at one end, and when they finish, they start all over again.

False. We inspect the bridge every two years. We document all the conditions of the pieces. And some things that haven’t been touched in 30 years are in pristine shape, while something [touched] 15 years ago is not.

The barriers on the pedestrian walks are so low because Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer, was only 5’3″ tall.

I can’t speak to his intentions, but he was a man of short stature. If you look at a picture of him, his shoulder was just barely above the existing rail on the outside.

The Golden Gate Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the world.

When it was first built, that was true. It stood that record for 30 years. It was passed by the Verrazzano-Narrows [in New York City], and now, by many other bridges.

At the 50th anniversary celebration in 1987, so many people packed the roadway, the bridge was in danger of collapsing.

I’ll give you a nuanced answer. No, it was not in danger of collapsing, but it is the greatest weight the bridge has ever carried. The bridge is designed to go up and down. If you look at the midpoint between the two towers, there’s a hump there. That’s designed to go up and down to a range of about 16 feet based on temperature and traffic. And the most it’s ever sagged was that day. It’s by far the greatest load it’s ever seen. And we will never, ever replicate that event.

I asked you the most challenging thing about your job. What’s the best thing?

The best thing is I get paid to work here. People come from all over the world to visit the Golden Gate Bridge. And this is where I work. If I have a bad day, I take off my fancy suit, pull on my boots and jeans, get a harness and a hard hat, and I go explore the world’s greatest jungle gym.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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