Behind every successful public service, there was an idea. That idea led to a proposal and that proposal led to a big bureaucracy that, whatever its faults, got the job accomplished.
Such is the case with the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, which was born by an act of the California legislature and governor on June 4, 1957.
BART, the entity, is now 50.
With the help of our librarian, I was able to find several fat envelopes of brittle, tannin-colored slips of newsprint from the year BART was born, hoping to find some nugget of wisdom or prediction that might sound laughable today.
I didn’t find a clipping from the day after the legislation passed. Maybe that envelope was destroyed in a recent basement flood in the vacated Trib Tower or maybe someone years ago borrowed that clipping and never put it back.
I found this, however: “Bay Area Mass Transit Need Held Urgent” atop a Dec. 29, 1957, story about the dissolution of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission and the release of its final report.
The story began with a long quote; something we avoid as a matter of style nowadays:
There is an urgent need to proceed without delay on a program directed at providing the Bay Area an adequate unified system of interurban rapid mass transit.
A satisfactory solution to the Bay Area’s traffic problem cannot be reached by building freeways alone. The solution can be reached only through a system of mass rapid transit developed on the premise of moving people — not moving automobiles.
The solution to our traffic woes cannot be solved by building freeways. A group of officials actually agreed to say this in 1957.
That was the year after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill creating the Interstate Highway System, the transport system that shapes our society today.
Still, Chairman Alan K. Browne of San Francisco and vice-chairman A.H. Moffitt Jr. of Alameda put their signatures to that statement.
Meanwhile, down south in the recently watered upstart metropolis of Los Angeles, plans were being drawn up for freeways through Topanga Canyon and along the beach in Malibu that were never built.
Today the Bay Area struggles with what by some measures is the nation’s second-worst traffic. But Thanks to Mssrs. Browne and Moffitt, and some consulting by the engineering firm of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall and MacDonald, we have something that LA doesn’t.
We got BART’s real birthday, the start of service on Sept. 11, 1972.
So we now have a well-developed rapid transit system that provides 360,000 rides a day, and in a pinch can substitute for a major breakdown in the freeway system.
When that MacArthur Maze ramp collapsed April 29, we didn’t just get by. We thrived. One guy I talked to on the Bay Bridge even said traffic was better when the ramp collapsed. Why? Because some very smart guys back in 1957 decided the Bay Area couldn’t do without a major fast rail system.
There were some doubters, to be sure. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties opted out of the district, and have spent decades buying themselves back in (and in the case of San Mateo, back out again).
The other counties have realized all that time that they’ll be hard-pressed to develop the way that Pleasanton or Walnut Creek have. The path of Fairfield and Santa Rosa is paved with sprawl and ever-increasing traffic nightmares until their counties get bailed out by some future financial windfall that connects them with the rest of the area.
What happens in LA when a freeway goes down? People take two-hour bus rides and three-hour detours, because there are few alternatives except for a very limited rail system that was built at great cost through highly built-up areas.
So here’s to you, Chairman Browne and all those other people who decided to take the road less traveled a half-century ago.