1966 BART Headline Gives Perspective and Context on High-Speed Rail

HSR's cost overruns are real: but so were overruns on systems that are now vital to the economic life of the region

This story from 1966 about BART looks strangely familiar. Image: SFChron
This story from 1966 about BART looks strangely familiar. Image: SFChron

“Have we been fooled?” asked the headline of the January 27, 1966 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle. The lead story on that day: how BART was a “Rapid Transit Fantasy.” The reproduced cover, seen in the lead image, was part of a recent nostalgia piece by the Chronicle. 

The parallels between last week’s Mercury News editorial on High-speed rail, which calls on lawmakers to “Stop the California bullet train in its tracks,” and the 1966 Chronicle piece on BART’s construction cost overruns were not lost on State Senator Scott Wiener. Here’s his tweet:

BART was the subject of an investigation headed by Michael Harris, an “…award-winning political reporter,” wrote the Chronicle’s Tim O’Rourkein Sunday’s article about the 1966 cover story, adding that: “The Bay Area Rapid Transit planning team had seen costs rise over estimates in the 1960s and by 1966 it was clear the system would need to procure more funds to complete the unprecedented project.”

Unprecedented? BART is, after all, just a rapid transit system; even in 1966, there were already similar systems all over the world, just not in California. And today, there are high-speed rail systems all over the world, just not in California. Note that $1 billion in 1966 was equivalent to nearly $8 billion in current dollars. California HSR’s overrun on the connection to San Jose is $2.8 billion.

Wiener goes on to point out that “Had this Merc News‘s flawed logic prevailed in 1960s – i.e. if costs increase on critical transit project, then kill the project no matter what its benefits – we wouldn’t have BART. We need statewide rail in CA.”

By the way, BART is hardly the only project that was nearly killed by naysayers. In the 1930s, there were vehement objections to the Golden Gate Bridge. “Critics depicted the bridge as financially unsound, legally dubious, an aesthetic blight and an engineering hazard in the decade before the start of construction in 1933,” wrote the SF Gate in a 2012 nostalgia piece. And it’s not just the Bay Area; all over the world, public works projects that are now part of the fabric of societies were often derided by the naysayers of the period–that includes everything from the Transcontinental Railroad to the Eiffel Tower.

As Streetsblog pointed out in a previous post, this recent HSR overrun is serious. But considering the experience of the Bay Bridge, and various airport and freeway projects, it’s hardly unique. The real question is, can California build anything without going over budget and behind schedule?

“Had legislators and NIMBYs not meddled with CaHSR, more construction could have been achieved earlier in the decade and at a lower cost. The long delays in land acquisition in the Central Valley have taken a major toll,” wrote Robert Cruickshank, an HSR activist and blogger, who has long followed the project. “Building the system piecemeal has always been the number one threat.” Cruickshank points out that with a GDP of $2.5 trillion, larger than nations that have funded their own successful HSR systems, the state can clearly afford to finish the project, even if it costs more than planned.

Or as Wiener puts it, by all means, “Yes let’s audit, but let’s not kill the train.”

  • Andy Chow

    The thing is that BART was partially completed and in operation 10 years after the bond vote. We almost approaching 10 years and has nothing to show.

  • Patrick Devine

    Except for all of the parts already finished in the central valley. Oh, and that’s despite the lawsuits.

  • Ethan

    The lawsuits delaying HSR were predictable and should have been factored into the estimated cost and completion date. The same should be true for other projects like freeway widening. Be honest with voters.

  • Bruce

    BART was actually fairly unprecedented for its time. It was the first fully automated metro system in the United States (maybe the world even?), and was a very different system than early 20th century-era subways such as those in NYC, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

  • OaktownPRE

    The overrun in 1966 was not a billion dollars. That was the total expenditure which I believe was an increase from $700M.

  • Roger R.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • david vartanoff

    BART was NOT the first automated subway system in the US–PATCO linking center City Philadelphia to Lindenwold NJ was. PATCO pioneered not only Automated Train Control, but Automatic Fare Collection opening for service several years before BART. (AFC was also in use back then by the Illinois Central Electric–now called Metra Electric Division–in Chicago.

    What BART DID pioneer was department of Defense style spending–low ball bids with huge cost overruns, low performing hardware from inexperienced vendors, and costly/faulty design decisions which expensively degrade the system to this day The decision to use cylindrical rather than tapered wheels recently described in various media pieces is the direct cause of the excessive rail wear and the horrendous howling in the transbay tube.

    A recent NY Times article on the world’s most expensive tunnel highlights a US inability to build large projects either on time or on budget whether highway junk like the “Big Dig” in Boston, the Central Subway in SF, or many other public works.

    CAHSR will be years late, the contractors/vendors will make huge profits, and it will be third rate compared to European and Japanese HSR, but like BART, once operational it will be highly useful. And, I am sure, there were naysayers who believed the Transcontinental Railroad was a corrupt waste of money. Corrupt it certainly was, but where would we be without it?

  • bolwerk

    So, $300 million overrun?

    FWIW, that’s the equivalent of over $2.3 billion in today’s dollars, and probably was a much larger percentage of the the local economy then than $2.3 billion is today.

  • jack

    We need to be open to solutions that will actually bust traffic, rather than pushing agendas. I don’t see any openness now or real discussion. Just binary choice: take HSR as is, or leave HSR. Clearly there are a zillion other possibilities.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    And many other solutions are being discussed also. SB 1 is just one other statewide program – here are its planned projects: http://rebuildingca.ca.gov/map.html

    As for “a zillion other possibilities,” how many might move people statewide? You got freeways/roads, planes/airports, and trains. And the Hyperloop if you want to bank on what is currently a fantasy. Even if you wanted some sort of “modified-HSR” for an impactful train solution, anything worth doing would have costs in the billions and require new track, rolling stock, grade separations, etc

  • Eric Johnson

    in honor of the Chron’s most famous headline: “A Great City’s People Forced to Read Swill”

  • crazyvag

    The use of cylindrical wheels was an attempt reducing “hunting” when bogies oscillate left to right / band and forth and give customers a smoother ride. It’s made worse by spring suspension which was common at the time. You can still observe it on Muni trains swaying left and right on straight track in the subway section.

    Designers clearly didn’t foresee the noise which probably was ‘normal’ when wheels and track were brand new. Since then, dampers and air suspension has been perfected to reduce hunting with cylindrical wheels.

    You can compare the ride quality on Caltrain on Bombardier vs Gallery cars to see what a little air-suspension and damping can do to ride quality on same track. Also, compare the ride quality of 50-year old BART cars with the 30 year old Caltrain Gallery cars. Even after 50 years, there’s still much less bouncing on BART than on Caltrain.

    You do bring up valid points, but I wanted to provide more context to the wheel decision.

  • crazyvag

    I’ve never seen lawsuits as a line item in big projects, so wonder if “delays due to expected lawsuits” is even allowed because in theory, this should in EIR.

  • Affen_Theater

    I think you meant to write: “Since then, dampers and air suspension has been perfected to reduce hunting with conical wheel [profiles].”

    It has been a very long time since anyone used (or even wants to use) cylindrical wheel profiles anymore … not even BART 🙂

  • Affen_Theater

    Regardless of what you put in your EIR … anyone can sue at any time alleging this or that deficiency or legal impropriety or injustice or whatever … potentially resulting in very real and significant project delays and cost increases.

  • Andy Chow

    Still not ready to finish. Still not ready to open.

  • Robert A. Shields

    When looking back at the HSR in fifty years the price was right. California needs to get the northern and southern sections fast tracked to catch up. It will also connect thge Central Valley by rail to San Francisco and Los Angeles finally. To fly to either from Fresno is almost $400.

  • We need statewide rail in CA? We need citywide rail in SF. Hundreds of billions on a delayed Geary BRT that will save only a couple minutes off the nearly 60 minutes it takes to cross town is hardly a solution. Once again, where is Wiener’s subway plan? Where’s his push for the state to approve billions of dollars to move more SF residents more quickly and efficiently throughout the city while reducing emissions by getting cars off the road?

  • daveysthunderpegasus

    We need both state wide and city wide. Longer routes will help determine the health and feasibility of local transit, and there will always be a trade off because longer routes are always going to be extremely expensive. In other words, there will never be a comfortable point where people will feel local rail expansion will be “enough,” and then all of a sudden feel that they can start investing in intercity travel. A comfortable point will never come, and waiting only makes things more difficult and more expensive.

  • 🚝 Great find! There are similar tabloid-headline attacks on SMART as well as HSR. Now that SMART is up and running and exceeding expectations, the people who were against it all along are busily arguing that this down is up, cars are faster, and success is actually not a success and is going to cause Agenda 21 overdevelopment etc. etc.

    Scandalous Transit Mess is my new mantra.

  • Otis Boone

    Is it really an overrun, or is it that years ago when HSR was scheduled to cost $100 billion and Governor Brown got the Rail Authority to “lower the cost” to $69 billion, reality is slowly making a comeback?

  • Vooch

    can we just try for a level that Matches bulgarian rail ?


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