San Francisco Chronicle
Toll plaza tunnel like ‘a time machine’
Passage built in 1936 gave access to Bay Bridge collection booths
A mysterious-seeming tunnel stretching beneath the Bay Bridge toll plaza has captivated the internet after a Bay Area resident posted a video of his visit to the subterranean walkway on TikTok.
The video, filmed and posted by East Bay resident Mingwei Samuel, 24, who said he likes to explore quirky sites on his bike, appeared on TikTok last weekend and has been viewed more than 283,000 times — far more than he expected. It’s been reposted elsewhere on social media, probably garnering more attention for the tunnel than it’s had in decades.
The tunnel, restricted to pedestrians and open to the public, was built when the bridge opened in 1936 and is maintained by Caltrans. It’s actually a pair of underground passages, one beneath the eastbound lanes on Interstate 80 to the toll plaza’s administration building. The other passes beneath the toll plaza and terminates at a decommissioned AC Transit bus stop.
Built at the same time as the Bay Bridge and toll plaza, the tunnel
provided access to bus stops serving toll collectors and other Caltrans workers in the administration building and maintenance yards at the bridge. Only the eastbound bus stop remains in use, served by three AC Transit bus lines. Use of the westbound stop ended in 2010 after the right-side FasTrak lanes were opened through the Bay Bridge toll plaza.
The tunnel is mostly unmarked — but for a small, faded, white-on-green sign on the toll plaza end of the tunnel beneath the eastbound lanes. Otherwise, the entrances to the tunnel — undistinguished concrete stairwells with metal railings — are easy to miss.
Samuel said he discovered the tunnel on Open Street Map, a worldwide mapping website and tool built and maintained by internet users. Samuel, who’s been fascinated by infrastructure since he was a kid, visited the tunnel earlier and decided to record, narrate and post a video.
“I thought it would be a cool thing for people to see,” he told The Chronicle.
“It’s a weird tunnel, actually very clean and sterile,” he said. “It’s very uninviting. The entrance is very subtle and unassuming, just some steps there. Inside it’s sterile, feels like a hospital with all the white walls, and just one random graffiti tag. I was pretty excited to see it existed the first time I went to explore.”
Samuel said he was surprised at how clean the tunnel was, with little trash or debris and no stench of urine, which many of the more than hundreds of people who commented said they expected. A Chronicle reporter found similar conditions during a visit last week.
Before the pandemic prompted the immediate end to human toll collectors, the northern side of the tunnel gave them safe access to most of the tollbooths.
While the tunnel is little used now, John Goodwin, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Toll Authority, said it’s a reminder of the past — when most tolls were collected by people who often reported to work by bus.
“That tunnel is literally a time machine,” he said. “You walk in, and that tunnel is literally 1936.”
The future of the tunnel is uncertain. With the advent of electronic toll collecting and as plans coalesce to demolish the tollbooths and install a new overhead toll-taking system, the tunnels will no longer be needed for either equipment or humans. Open-road tolling is expected to eliminate the booths and redesign the toll plaza by about 2026.
Jeff Gerbracht, manager of the open-road tolling project, said the tunnel could be closed — at least beneath the tollbooths — but that plans haven’t yet progressed that far.
As Samuel points out in his video, the tunnel provides a way for pedestrians — and bicyclists willing to haul their bikes up and down stairs before climbing over a concrete barrier — to get to the remote and little-used Toll Plaza Beach, a spot frequented mostly by kiteboarders who have to drive there.
“I would hope they would keep it,” he said. “And provide a better way to get to the frontage road and the beach.”