The name game

Want a bridge or freeway named after you? Here's the skinny.

Greg Lucas’ state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every other week in SN&R. He also blogs at

Bummer for James “Sunny Jim” Rolph. The charismatic mayor of San Francisco from 1912 to 1931, who died in office broke as California’s 27th governor, got his bridge taken away again.

Just the other day, Sunny Jim’s bridge—at least the western half of it—got renamed for another flamboyant San Francisco mayor: Willie Lewis Brown Jr.

At a ceremony Brown hosted on Treasure Island, he was asked if the Rolph family had called. Brown curtly replied, “No.” Apparently, jokes about the lineage of a man’s bridge are as off-limits as ones about its length.

In 1936, the state Toll Bridge Authority wanted to name the bridge after Rolph, as tribute to the dead governor’s efforts in getting the structure built. Joeseph R. Knowland, a Republican kingmaker and publisher of the Oakland Tribune, shit-canned the idea—perhaps thinking that his successful lobbying of Congress and president for $62 million to begin construction, warranted his name on the world’s longest bridge. In 1986, at the bridge’s golden anniversary, a plaque finally recognized the bridge as Sunny Jim’s.

Of course, everyone still calls it the “Bay Bridge” and still will despite the Legislature bogarting Sunny Jim with a 2013 resolution in favor of Brown. According to Brown, doing so has bipartisan appeal. Brown recounts that a “tea-bag guy” (presumably “tea party” guy) accosted him and said he looked forward to “rolling over” Brown daily.

By any yardstick, Brown is a pioneering politician: First African-American Assembly speaker, longest tenure as same, first African-American mayor of San Francisco and so on. Having half of the second-most-trafficked bridge in the country named after him is a terrific tribute. But when does the name game end?

Gov. Jerry Brown opposes naming any of California’s public works after people, although the state’s north-south aqueduct is named after his father, the champion of its creation. But governors have no authority to block the Legislature’s naming efforts, and so events like the following will happen more and more often:

A while back, lawmakers were going to name part of the East Bay’s Interstate 680 after a former colleague who had represented the area. One elderly Californian named Donald D. Doyle opposed the move, because the section of highway was already named after him in recognition of his securing the funding to build it back in the 1950s. Doyle won, but who knows what happens now that he’s dead.

Caltrans’ most recent tally of namings was in 2011. There are more than 700 individuals or entities whose name graces a few miles of highway, an overpass, an interchange, a tunnel, a bridge, a rest area or a memorial plaque. Far more parts of the highway system are named after places and persons—often killed-in-the-line-of-duty peace officers—than former lawmakers. Drive an hour or two in any direction on any major thoroughfare for proof the name game is escalating.

The state Senate called for a Caltrans study of this proliferation—in 1962. The report led lawmakers to place a moratorium on new namings. Caltrans updated the report in 1967. It recommended future names embrace geographic and historical features, not be memorials.

The Legislature thanked Caltrans and, more than 45 years later, continues to ignore their recommendations. The Legislature does claim, however, that its rules demand a person be seriously dead before part of the transportation system can be named after them. As in Brown’s case, exceptions are routinely made. One rule that actually is ironclad requires the person or entity honored to spring for the “vanitysigns on either side of the highway—about $800 to $1,200 a pop. Brown’s signs were being installed as the naming ceremony took place.

So, other than clutter, for now, no Californian is really harmed by these shenanigans. But soon some ex-elected official will be quoted saying: “My bridge is bigger than yours,” or, “You want to talk big, check out my interchange.” It’s only a matter of time—and highway miles.