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BART Turns 46: Transportation Gamble Now Indispensable 'City On Wheels'

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- It's the system people love to complain about, and yet it's hard to imagine how the Bay Area could function without it. Now rolling headlong into the realm of middle age, Bay Area Rapid Transit will celebrate its 46th birthday this week, and if you want to take a trip through BART history, there's no better person to do it with than Mike Healy, BART's spokesman for more than 39 years.

"Well, it's a miracle. I think BART is an absolute miracle," said Healy, looking back the system's origins. "It came so close to not happening."

The original plans were ambitious: a rail system stretching from Santa Clara to San Rafael. It was to be sleek, fast, and stylish. A vision of the future, a possible solution to post-war automobile woes, BART was envisioned as many things, but in reality, it was an expensive dollar gamble. Despite a lot corporate campaigning and untold amounts of backroom arm-twisting, it was a gamble some people wanted nothing to do with.

"San Mateo [County] dropped out," recalled Healy. "And then BART asked Marin to drop out when it became clear that the Golden Gate Bridge would not allow trains on the second deck, and that was the original plan. Even then, when the vote came around in 1962, it was a squeaker. Only reason it won was because they averaged the three counties out. Had it not passed, there would be no BART today."

Construction launched in 1964, the last piece of the Transbay Tube was submerged in 1969, and by 1972, and the first leg of the system was opened between Fremont and MacArthur Stations. The project was also running over budget. Reporting on the eve of BART's launch, KPIX reporter Ed Arnow described BART as "the payoff for the astronomical indebtedness that San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties have been willing to accept voluntarily." So by the time Day 1 rolled around, that perennial BART struggle was built into the system, the cost, versus the promise of a traffic solution.

Two years later, the system would connect to San Francisco. Speaking at the 1974 celebration San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto declared "nobody is a fanatic against automobiles, but we all recognize that the automobile has had too much in the way of a monopolistic absorption of our interest and energy and now we're changing that."

Amid the excitement, however, there was a word of caution from BART management, which predicted there would be challenges in the future, and there was. There were leaks in the Transbay Tube. The train control system had problems that sent the notorious "Fremont Flyer" train off the rails. The board of directors was replaced amid allegations of financial mismanagement. Then, in 1979, there was a fatal fire beneath the bay.

That fire produced a lot of hard lessons for BART, said Healy. But he also noted those BART was not unique in that respect. "Transit is always faced with challenges," Healy explained. " Every transit system is faced with challenges, maintenance challenges, expansion challenges, financial challenges." There have also been labor challenges when striking workers crippled mobility in the Bay Area, but that chaos - think back to 2013 - also proves that over the years, BART became exactly what its supporters said it would be.

BART's ridership has more than tripled over the course of its history. It was critical in the weeks following the Loma Prieta earthquake when the Bay Bridge was damaged. The Transbay Tube now carries some 340,000 commuters every weekday, while the Bay Bridge only carries about 290,000 cars. BART is something the Bay Area simply could not live without. As for the agency's more recent challenges of crime, drugs and homelessness, they serve as a reminder that BART isn't just a train system; it's also reflection of the Bay Area itself. "Yeah, BART is kind of a microcosm of the world it serves," said Healy. "I always liked the term city on wheels, cause that's what it is."

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