Trains Ran When Rest Was Chaos : Transportation: The successes of BART during and after the Bay Area quake demonstrated the need for transit alternatives and subsidies to keep them healthy.

<i> Neal R. Peirce writes for the National Journal. </i>

The star performer during and after October’s killer earthquake was the Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s 71.5-mile automated rail system. Riders in a BART train passing through the system’s 3.6-mile tube under San Francisco Bay at the moment the quake struck felt scarcely a tremor.

BART engineers, armed with spotlights and flashlights, checked every structure along the system, which had been consciously designed to withstand an earthquake as massive as San Francisco’s legendary 1906 upheaval. The damage they found was largely cosmetic. The seismic joint at the Oakland end of the tube had shifted three-quarters of an inch--a fraction of its 4-inch tolerance.

Five hours after the earthquake, BART had trains running from 25 miles away into the West Oakland Station--just a mile from the collapsed Nimitz Freeway. Nine hours after the great jolt, trains were passing again through the trans-bay tube. The engineering of the 20-year-old tube--57 steel and concrete sections lowered into place and then welded together in a trench of mud and gravel as deep as 132 feet under the bay’s surface--had been vindicated.


The morning after, with the critically important San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge out of commission and hundreds of buildings gravely damaged, BART was up and going with a full 45-train schedule. Trains were operating automatically at their regular speeds of up to 80 m.p.h.

BART became an enabler, and a symbol, of the Bay Area’s recovery. For a rail system born in controversy, shortchanged during construction and prone to embarrassing accidents in its youth, it was a sweet moment. For a month, while the Bay Bridge was out of service, BART’s ridership soared from a prequake average of 218,000 trips a day to 350,000 most days.

Was it too good to last? Yes.

When the bridge reopened, most of the new riders went back to their private cars. University of California city planner Elizabeth Deakin had predicted it: “There are simply too many things going on in people’s lives--friendships, family responsibilities, getting exercise after work--that make the automobile something they’re quite entranced with.”

But not all of BART’s converts have disappeared. Ridership remains 30,000 or more over daily prequake levels--a substantial 15% increase. Why the continued gain? “A mix of Bay Bridge phobia and liking BART once they got to know it,” suggests Mike Healy, BART’s public-affairs officer.

But never again will it be plausible to suggest that BART is a foolish frill or a multibillion-dollar luxury that Bay Area residents were insane to approve, as they did in a 1962 referendum.

BART and the quake illustrate, instead, the immense value of back-up transportation systems, of redundancy, and of transit-accessible development.

Whether the perils be earthquakes, floods, global oil shortages or air pollution emergencies, modern cities need multiple transportation alternatives. No one suggests that autos are about to disappear, just that they cannot be relied on exclusively.

Many alternatives to the single-passenger auto should be available--car and van pools, buses, ferries, bicycles and feasible home-to-work walking distances, for starters. And for heavy-duty long-distance transport in a metropolitan region of any size, rail.

Even auto-happy California seems to be learning that lesson. San Diego, San Jose and Sacramento have new rail systems. Decades late, Los Angeles is building a starter system.

Rail systems ought to be built to attract maximum feasible patronage as soon as they open. But to ask that they operate without major public subsidy is foolish. Every full transit rail car at rush hours removes 75 to 125 autos from the highways. Each time a commuter switches from auto to mass transit, there’s a dramatic yearly reduction in hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides emitted into the atmosphere.

The American Public Transit Assn. is asking for a 7-cent increase in the federal gas tax, dedicated to mass transit. That would yield $11 billion annually--up from today’s $3.2 billion. Too much to ask? Maybe. But public transit facilities and fleets have fallen woefully behind reasonable cycles of rehabilitation and replacement.

Transit development should precede market demand, providing the valuable redundancy that BART has just demonstrated, and anticipating the likelihood of more dense, transit-served urban centers.

Can we afford it? Consider this: Auto companies spend more than $5 billion each year just to advertise. That’s more than America’s total annual mass-transit capital investment.

We’re not a poor country. We’re just spending our money the wrong way.