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BART's History Provides a Foundation for the Future

Communications Department Manager
San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART)

Special to Passenger Transport

Editor’s Note: With BART’s recent ballot-box victory in which voters approved $3.5 billion for the agency’s rebuilding, San Francisco is poised for another “transit renaissance” that promises to transform the city as dramatically as the rail system did when it opened in 1972. (See the previous Passenger Transport article “It’s Time to Rebuild.”) Trost offers an interesting preview of a new book recounting BART’s history.

BART, The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System
, a new book by Michael C. Healy (head of BART’s Media & Public Affairs Department for 32 years) takes us on a rollercoaster ride starting when BART was only a gleam in the eye of one person following World War II. From there it emerged from vision to a hard-fought reality but came within “a gnat’s eyelash of not happening at all.”

Healy said, “When BART’s General Manager Grace Crunican urged me to write the history of the system at lunch one day in the summer of 2012, I kiddingly told her I didn’t write science fiction. I thought about it and realized there was a great story to be told here. My only caveat was that it would be with warts and all. Grace agreed.”

Technology had languished and in general public transit systems across the country were beginning to feel the effects of the post-war period after the boom years of the early 1940s when ridership was at its highest in history. Tanks coming off the assembly lines for the war effort were being replaced by automobiles for which there was a demand as suburban life took root and an automobile culture began to reign.

But spreading growth began to look like urban sprawl and voices were calling for a revitalized America’s public transportation system.

Thus, the idea of a high speed regional rail rapid transit system for the Bay Area began to get traction ­during the 1950s and reached “vision” status by mid-1957. But for BART, adopting space age technology and overlaying 75 miles of concrete and steel across the region meant a long, bumpy road ahead.

Healy says one great piece of luck was his interview with the late Bill Stokes about his tenure as the system’s general manager during the construction years of the basic three-county system.

“Bill offered some wonderful anecdotes about some of the hurdles and controversies encountered during the early years,” Healy said. Stokes guided the building of the system from 1963 to 1974 and then moved on to preside over the merger of the bus and rail trade associations to create APTA.

Healy also writes that the New York City subway, built in 1904 by William Barclay Parsons, founder of Parsons Engineering, had ramifications for BART some 65 years into the future. Parsons Engineering eventually became Parsons Brinckerhoff, part of the consortium that built BART.

Healy takes us through the controversial construction years, the often contentious politics and boardroom acrimony and some horrendous watershed events that greatly impacted the system in its first 40 years.

But when BART opened its doors on Sept. 11, 1972, the landmark event was the beginning of a new era in modern ground transportation.
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