The birth of BART 50 Years Ago: A bold, challenging vision to entice commuters out of their cars

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ByDavid Louie KGO logo
Tuesday, September 13, 2022
The birth of BART 50 years ago: A look back at how it came to be
The idea was born in 1951. But it took another 20 years of hard work to make that dream come true. Here's a look back at the beginning of how BART came to be.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system was an ambitious goal to create a next-generation network 68 years after New York's subway system launched. While Sept. 11, 1972 was a true milestone, the achievement was hardly easy. Groundbreaking was eight years earlier in 1964. But the initial concept to link the region's nine counties had its roots in a 1947 Army-Navy study that promoted a transbay tube. Details are in a book about BART's history written by former public affairs director Mike Healy.

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"They were concerned that if the bridge were knocked out for some reason during a war time, they would need a way to move troops back and forth, and they felt an underwater tube would be the answer to that between the East Bay and West Bay," said BART historian and retired BART public affairs manager Mike Healy.

Voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties in 1962 approved a $792 million bond measure to create BART, even though Marin and San Mateo counties had pulled out over cost. Santa Clara County, pre tech boom, didn't see the need. In the case of Marin, there was no interest in building a second deck on the Golden Gate Bridge for the BART trains. Technically, the vote for the BART bond failed to win by the required margin in Contra Costa. State lawmakers intervened to keep the plan from being derailed.

"The state legislature passed a bill that allowed them to average out the votes between the three counties," said Healy. "Had they not done that, then it would have been the two counties to carry it, and it wouldn't have happened."

Inaugural service was East Bay only, running between MacArthur Station in Oakland and Fremont because the tube underneath San Francisco Bay to San Francisco was still under construction.

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'It was probably one of the most exciting days, not only for all of us that were working at BART at the time, but also for the Bay Area," said Healy.

A ribbon cutting ceremony was held on that Monday morning at Lake Merritt Station with then Oakland Mayor Frank Ogawa and then San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto doing the honors. Passengers lined up in long queues to be among the first to try the new system when revenue service began at noon.

Filmed coverage restored from the ABC7 News archives captured positive reaction from those first-day passengers.

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Reaction was positive from passengers.

"It reminds me of New York when I was living there," said one man. Another remarked, "this is like a 747."

The magnetic-striped paper tickets and the electronic gates were critical to providing fast and easy access to the train platforms. Because no one had ever used them before, there was a novelty aspect and a learning process as BART riders became accustomed to storing and adding fare value to their tickets.

Aboard the trains, passengers discovered wide, fabric-covered seats, big picture windows, the promise of a seat for everyone and speed up to 80 miles an hour, all features designed to lure commuters out of their cars and to alleviate traffic congestion.

Bay Area residents endured years of construction as crews dug up streets for underground tracks and stations, complicated by high water tables and tangled utility lines. Elsewhere, BART was able to use freeway medians and to build aerial tracks.

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There were technical issues, too. BART's vision was to create a space age system with centralized automatic train control with manual operation only in an emergency. However, during the test phase, the collision-avoidance system worked only 99 percent of the time, which was unacceptable to state regulators. There was no model for it, as Healy pointed out, this being the first new mass transit system to be built in nearly 70 years. Delays caused by that, budget overruns and inflation also posed challenges.

It took another two years to open the transbay tube to bring trains to San Francisco in eight minutes. The twin bore tunnel consisted of 57 sections that had to be lowered into a trench dug along the floor of the bay at a cost of an additional $133 million.

On Sept. 16, 1974, this reporter was on hand for the first day of transbay service..

"A computer error had patrons baffled. Electronic signs told Daly City riders the train was bound to Pleasant Hill," said reporter David Louie in a film clip from the ABC7 News archives.

In spite of glitches like that, BART was uncompromising in terms of creating a best in class system, using steel wheels, not rubber ones, for better traction; using a wider than typical track gauge for stability from high winds; and relying on light-weight aluminum train bodies to reduce braking and acceleration times.

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Mike Healy is convinced there was only a narrow window to hatch BART, and it took business and political support, taxpayer dollars and a strong vision to make it happen.

"If it had not passed that bond issue, $792 million, to build the basic system, you wouldn't have a BART today," he said.

Fifty years later, it's noteworthy that some of the original 1972 trains are still in service, although they're quickly being replaced by newer cars. Also noteworthy, the original manufacturer, Rohr Industries of Southern California, was an aerospace company and had never before made a mass transit train. BART's system design, engineering and train cars ushered in a new era for American mass transit and served as a model for urban mass transit that followed in other cities.

Take a look at all our coverage of BART's 50th anniversary, as well as the latest stories and videos on the transit system.

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