How BART on the Golden Gate Bridge Died: A New History
"A Machiavellian plot" to kill a Bay Area dream
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The history of BART to Marin via Golden Gate Bridge — or lack thereof — has been a pretty straightforward one. The story goes: Marin County, worried about cost of the extension and engineering concerns of running BART on the Golden Gate Bridge, ultimately backed out of the BART District. Fin.
In its history on its website, BART describes Marin’s departure from the District as such:1
With the District-wide tax base thus weakened by the withdrawal of San Mateo County, Marin County was forced to withdraw in early 1962 because its marginal tax base could not adequately absorb its share of BART's projected cost. Another important factor in Marin's withdrawal was an engineering controversy over the feasibility of carrying trains across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Local media, such as SFGate, have reported in recent years upon the controversy surrounding the engineering feasibility of trains running on the Golden Gate Bridge as well:2
The bridge district also tapped the shoulder of engineering consultant Clifford E. Paine, who worked on the original bridge design, to review the BART report. But Paine wasn’t impressed and denounced the idea that trains be allowed on a possible second deck.
The following year, in 1962, bridge directors brought on O.H. Ammann, Frank M. Masters and N.M. Newmark as members of the engineering board that would review the two conflicting reports. Together, they determined that “the margin of safety would be decreased to a greater extent than is advisable,” given the weight of the trains and how the load would affect the flexible span, the Chronicle reported in 1970.
Mike Healy, the former department manager of media and public affairs at BART and the author of the excellent history book “BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System,” has provided the most detailed and authoritative explanation of the feasibility issue so far.3
In a duel of engineering studies, two affirmed that a second deck of the bridge could handle trains, while two others paid for by the bridge authority concluded that trains would put too much stress on the support cables. Using the second deck to connect the proposed train system with Marin County had always been contemplated as part of the first-phase plan for BART, but the bridge authorities refused to budge on the issue. End of story. The only other option was to build another tube from San Francisco to Sausalito at an enormous extra cost, which have to be borne by Marin County taxpayers.
Looking north to Marin County again, the [BART District] BARTD directors were concerned that Marin, given the circumstances, could very well vote against the project and possibly sink the entire enterprise. Reluctantly, the BARTD board voted to request that Marin County supervisors withdraw their county from the District. There was debate on the issue by the supervisors, but in the spring of 1962 they voted the county out, noting they were doing it involuntarily. Prior to the November 1962 section, Marin made overtures to be let back into the transit district, but they were rejected by the BARTD board, who again feared that Marin would drag down the entire project.
All three excerpts paint a consistent history of how Marin County’s BART dreams died on the vines. But they all speak of the moving forces at play — BART District, Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District — at institutional levels, as if all parties moved with the weight and size of a large naval ship. Very rarely do these histories highlight the decision-makers who eventually made the call to sever Marin County from BART, which still carry ramifications to this day.
In a 2009 book “Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics and the Golden Gate Bridge,” academic Louise Nelson Dyble paints a granular history of the Golden Gate Bridge, including the overseer district’s tête-à-tête with BART. Using primary historical sources, Dyble in Chapter 5 of her book delves deep into the chronological tick-tock of how the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District management successfully killed the BART extension in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Dyble stops before calling the whole affair a sabotage. Dyble lays out a full covert plan by the bridge district to resist realizing BART on the bridge at all costs — while acknowledging privately that trains can indeed run on the bridge without major engineering issues. The resistance came not from technical or logistical reasons, but rather an ideological one held by one engineer whose influence dictated much of the bridge district’s political course at the time.
The one engineer was certainly a man of his time, a time in America where trains in cities were on the wane in favor of the private automobile. But he crafted a lengthy career ensuring trains in American cities would stay in second footing to the automobile. His fingerprints are strewn across cities in the western United States, and especially in the Bay Area. Those who ask why our American cities are shaped a certain way may be keen to learn the name Arthur C. Jenkins.
Nearly the entire post comes from the fantastic book “Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics and the Golden Gate Bridge” by Louise Nelson Dyble. For anyone who want to learn more about the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Area transit history and Bay Area political history, I cannot recommend this book enough. Click here to purchase the book.
I work for BART, as a full personal disclosure. I want to state the following that this post and Substack is a personal hobby and it is not affiliated with my employer in any shape or form. All opinions stated in this post are entirely my own. Despite reservations on publishing this post due to potential conflict of interest, I decided to because 1) the main events occurred nearly 60 years ago 2) this is all public information courtesy of Dyble’s book 3) it colors a newsworthy story I feel compelled to share. When I started S(ubstack)-Bahn, I did not want my professional life and personal hobby to cross. I expect history posts focused on BART or American public transit to be an exception going forward for my future content at S(ubstack)-Bahn.
I also understand this may catch attention of local Bay Area news or blog outlets who have through the years shown interest in this topic. If you are one and interested in writing something on this topic, please contact me to discuss. But I want to put in writing that I would prefer not being attributed in the local press in any capacity due to my employment with BART and possible conflicts of interest.
Arthur C. Jenkins
Arthur C. Jenkins and the Death of Urban Streetcars
Very little information on the Internet is available about Arthur C. Jenkins. Dyble spends some time coloring in his life; Jenkins graduated from University of California, Berkeley in 1931 in engineering and began his career as a civil engineer at the California Public Utilities Commission.4 At the Commission, he handled applications of private transit franchise holders in the state for fare increases or service changes — all of which required state approval. His views on urban mass transit soured early in his career, as he saw intimately streetcar systems teetering toward collapse in the 1930s.
Jenkins’ antipathy toward rail transit was clarified by 1939, when he delivered an address on “The Future of Urban and Interurban Transportation” at the University of Southern California.5 He saw the future in automobiles — or, for mass transit, in buses. Rail, to Jenkins, was pure folly, its decaying body propped up solely by nostalgia and incalcitrant politicians.
The rubber-tired trackless vehicle has established itself permanently in the field of passenger transit and its continued growth and development can be expected...not only in providing service to new areas but [also in the] replacement of existing rail service. Due to its rapid development during recent years and the traditional place in society occupied by the rail car, the motor coach has not met with full public approval, but when the masses are acquainted with its desirable features and the strides being made in engineering and research in an attempt to develop a vehicle which will afford the maximum comfort, speed, safety, durability, and adequacy of service, the existing resentment will be for the most part dispelled.
During World War II, Jenkins left the Commission to command automative and passenger transit operations for a Naval district encompassing most of western United States. After the War, he continued his career with the Navy as a reserve officer and was licensed as a mechanical and electric engineer. He also briefly served as transportation manager for the Key System, the streetcar network which crisscrossed Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda in the East Bay.
After World War II, Jenkins became highly sought across western United States as a consultant for struggling private streetcar operators thanks to his experience. He was to fix the ailing urban rail transit systems. But his solution was consistent and wholesale: shut the streetcars down, rip out the rails and replace them with buses — or as he called “survival through rubber tires” for urban mass transportation. He came in as a fixer but left rather an euthanizer.
His biggest kill was the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles. In 1949 he developed a “modernization plan” calling for total elimination of PER rails and replacement with buses, and lobbied municipal, state and federal agencies to achieve his goal.6 He was also influential in the total replacement of streetcars to buses in San Diego, Fresno, Phoenix, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland. In 1949, Jenkins helped reject a proposed subway system in San Francisco as a consultant to the city; he argued a San Francisco subway system was unnecessary and expensive and that express buses and traffic control techniques can alleviate the city’s traffic issues.7
For Jenkins, urban rail was inefficient, inflexible, expensive, financially unsustainable, poorly managed and decaying — characteristics diametrically opposite of that of the private automobile. After twenty-plus years of working with (and within) private streetcar operators who were constantly bleeding money and falling apart, Jenkins saw nothing but rot in urban rail. Jenkins doubled down on his beliefs espoused in his 1939 talk in the 1949 modernization plan he penned for PER8:
The theory so often propounded that retention of rail lines enhances public values and adds intrinsic importance to the community it serves is as obsolete as the rail equipment itself… [No other industry is] so persistently beset with militant opposition in its efforts to follow the natural course that good business judgment dictates, in attempting to maintain a reasonable margin between revenue and cost of providing service. It is inconceivable that anyone could advocate the preservation of outmoded facilities whose cost of operation far exceeds the revenues earned and insist upon further heavy capital investment to insure the preservation of such a losing project.
In 1948, Jenkins took part-time work as a consultant for the bridge district overseeing the Golden Gate Bridge. In the 1950s, Jenkins saw his role and influence in the authority grow, thanks to his budding relationship with James Adam, the general manager. By the mid-1950s, he was all but in name chief engineer for the bridge authority.9
The mid-1950s, also, was a heady time for the Bay Area as it began imagining a new state-of-the-art transportation solution to connect the region: Bay Area Rapid Transit.
Jenkins and Adam versus BART
Since the founding of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission in 1951, the mission to build BART was running at full speed. It was exclusively boosted by local bankers and industrialists, civic leaders, real estate investors and county boosters — a coalition of Bay Area’s moneyed class eager to heighten the regional prestige in the postwar boom times. A part of the coalition was from Marin County, who hoped a new BART system would resolve bottleneck traffic issues on the Golden Gate Bridge and bring suburban relevance to a mostly sleepy rural outpost north of San Francisco. In a 1959 survey by the Marin-based newspaper Independent Journal (its editors were BART’s loudest supporters in Marin), 87% of respondents were in favor of a BART Marin extension.10
In 1956, BART engineers conducted an engineering feasibility study to determine whether BART trains can run on the Golden Gate Bridge. The conclusion was triumphant: the Golden Gate Bridge is more than capable of handling the weight of rails and fast-moving trains on a new, second deck of the bridge.11 It however likely needed rebuilding sidewalks, roadways and railing to reduce weight. In a summary report in response to the BART feasibility report, Jenkins also concluded that technically, BART on the Golden Gate Bridge was “probably possible.”12
But Jenkins vehemently opposed BART’s extension on the “human aspects involved in such a project.”13 Jenkins was concerned about the financial obligations Marin County taxpayers and the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District may face as BART construction costs became due. He cited the litany of urban rail companies which folded under his watch as reason to cast doubt on BART’s long-term success. In a 1959 Long Range Planning Survey report for the bridge district, Jenkins challenged BART’s notion that the Bay Area, by large, was supportive for BART, asking whether there was real public demand for a rapid transit network when they can still drive on their automobiles.14
In a 1960 letter to a bridge district board member, Jenkins argued that the only hope for BART to succeed was with entirely new housing and business developments along its routes, built in conjunction with existent traffic woes so bad that middle-class suburban commuters would change their lifestyles to go live in high-density, urban developments next to BART stations. He didn’t believe BART would bring about this transformation. Thus, he accused public backers of BART as “in general, completely uninformed as to the problems with which they are confronted…[and] unfortunately become influenced unduly by political pressures and local influences.”15
Despite Jenkins’ strong stance against BART, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District officials publicly took a neutral stance with BART officials in informal negotiations which began in 1959. One BART official reported they’ve received a "very warm welcome” from bridge district board members and officials in a visit.16 The bridge district was under heavy political pressure from local elected politicians in Marin, BART directors, the Independent Journal editorial board, and San Franciscan BART boosters to accept BART on the Golden Gate Bridge. But at the same time, its general manager, James Adam, privately and increasingly relied on Jenkins to formulate the district’s war strategy against BART. Jenkins not only was the acting chief engineer but also Adam’s political consigliere.
On November 5, 1959, Adam and Jenkins informally met with BART District general manager John Pierce and chief engineer Kenneth Hoover. Pierce and Hoover came in with high hopes of formalizing the bridge district’s approval; Adam and Jenkins crushed it. Adam kept a diplomatic stance, but Jenkins laid his concerns on the table, arguing the engineering feasibility was too uncertain, financially too burdensome for the bridge district and administratively too byzantine. Out of the meeting, the two parties agreed to another independent feasibility study, paid for by BART District and the engineers chosen ultimately by the bridge district from a BART-selected pool.17
BART officials made it known they believed the engineering feasibility of running trains on the Golden Gate Bridge was already decided in 1956. Jenkins likely did not disagree; in an analysis to his board directors in 1959, Jenkins wrote “there is no valid reason for lack of cooperation of the bridge district…in developing the essential features of rail rapid transit” on the bridge.18 However, he was staunchly against the project for financial and ideological reasons, which would not fly in the court of public opinion. He hoped the new engineering study — led by the firm of D.B. Steinman — would buy the bridge district time and justifications against BART on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Gronquist versus Paine
The second engineering feasibility report from D.B. Steinman was published in 1960. It sided with BART once again, finding the installation of rails on the Golden Gate Bridge “feasible and practical.”19 C.H. Gronquist, a partner at Steinman’s firm, was a lead engineer on the report and conducted wind tunnel tests to see how the bridge with rails would hold up. Gronquist recommended minor changes to reinforce the bridge’s weight resiliency — at a surprisingly affordable price. BART officials were ecstatic at Gronquist’s findings; a legislative bill was introduced in Sacramento shortly after the Steinman report to authorize the use of Golden Gate Bridge tolls to finance the BART Marin extension.20
The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was ready for the report and prepared an ace in the hole: Clifford E. Paine. Paine was a civil engineer who worked under Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer and architect of the Golden Gate Bridge. Paine increasingly took over Strauss’ day-to-day work in supervising the construction of the bridge as Strauss’ mental health deteriorated under exhaustion in 1933.21 Twenty-seven years later, Jenkins and Adam brought the 73-year-old Paine out of retirement in Michigan to poke holes in the Gronquist/Steinman report.
Paine objected to the report mainly on two fronts. First, Paine argued that the BART proposal to lower the center of gravity of the bridge to add a new deck for rails would violate the original permit granted by the War Department. Second, Paine claimed Gronquist’s calculations were too lenient, arguing “the size and importance of the Golden Gate Bridge demand its design loads and stresses be conservative.” Paine also argued that all construction work on the Golden Gate Bridge “must be done without interference with traffic” and any alterations of the roadway to reduce weight on the bridge was unacceptable as it would be “obnoxious to automobile drivers and passengers.”22
Gronquist dismissed these concerns in his rebuttal; Paine remained steadfast. This conflict, however, was enough for the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District board members — who were increasingly swayed by Adam and Jenkins’ concerns — to vote to adopt Paine’s findings of safety concerns in September 5, 1961.23 The first cracks on BART to Marin were beginning to show.
An editorial cartoon from the San Francisco Chronicle in September 13, 1961. The three men represent the Golden Gate Bridge District Board who are protecting their fortress (and the Golden Gate Bridge) with the banner “Progress, Stay Away from Our Porches” and the middle character yelling “GADZOOKS, men, do I hear the progressive trumpet of rapid transit?”
“A Machiavellian Plot”
BART District Board President Adrian Falk was apoplectic at the vote. Falk at a following BART board meeting said that the bridge directors betrayed BART’s trust and that if there would be no BART to Marin extension, they would be to blame for the “amputation.” Falk accused James Adam of “a Machiavellian plot” by manipulating the board during an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. He called upon the Marin and San Francisco supervisors to appoint a new, impartial board of engineers to review the two reports. Falk was quoted saying at the Board meeting:24
If the difference of opinion between engineers that existed back in the 1930’s had been treated in the same manner, the Golden Gate Bridge would not link San Francisco and Marin today. We certainly are not, as some bridge directors glibly and erroneously charged Tuesday, asking anyone to “gamble” with lives or with the safety of the bridge. Such comments…have one purpose; to divert attention from the main issue — to inject an emotional and inflammatory element into a decision that should have been based only on engineering facts and figures and determination to fulfill the public trust.
As Falk shared his fury in public, BART officials in private began to close the door on an extension to Marin County. By fall 1961, BART was under serious time pressure; a 1959 state bill authorizing the use of tolls from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to build the Transbay Tube was turning into a ticking time bomb. BART had to procure at least $500 million in voter-approved bonds from the District county voters by November 30, 1962 to be able to use the toll revenues. With 14 months to prepare for a life-or-death bond measure, BART was looking ahead to a four-county ballot measure with Marin sitting out.
The bridge district board was badly shaken up by the storm of negative press and public opinion after their vote. The San Francisco Examiner ran a humiliating story five days after the board vote with documents from the bridge’s construction period detailing how Strauss — Paine’s boss and the mastermind of the Golden Gate Bridge — believed and promised the bridge would have ample capacity to accommodate trains if the time came.25 Within a month, the bridge district board reconvened and withdrew its vote of supporting Paine’s findings. They also agreed on another impartial engineering feasibility — the fourth of its kind after the 1956 BART study, 1959 Gronquist/Steinman study and 1960 Paine study/rebuttal.
This was too late for BART District. Later that month in October 1961, BART announced its plan to move forward with a four-county ballot measure (soon to become three-county after San Mateo County dropped out in January 1962) with the Marin line now only a possible second-phase extension.26 That promise, however, was contingent on this new fourth study.
“Forgive Them for They Know Not What They Say”
The fourth engineering feasibility study would be handled by an independent firm again, but this time, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District paid for the study and vetted the candidates. The bridge district selected Othmar Ammann, Frank M. Masters, and N.M. Newmark. Ammann had previous experience working on constructing and later reinforcing the Golden Gate Bridge. Masters and Newmark, however, did not have much relevant expertise; Masters was a junior engineer under Ammann and Newmark was a earthquake safety engineer with little knowledge about bridges.27 It appeared Ammann’s team were in regular and private correspondence with James Adam prior to selection for this study as well, per records from Adam’s former assistant.28
In April 1962, Ammann’s study was published and it concluded negatively on the feasibility. Building rails on the Golden Gate Bridge — under the criteria laid out by the bridge district — would be too risky.29 The dream of BART on the Golden Gate bridge officially died on April 1962.
Even among the bridge district board, there were tensions created by the Ammann report and the aftermath of realizing BART to Marin was now dead. Several board members got into a verbal confrontation, with a bystander director quipping “forgive them for they know not what they say.”30 The bridge district board ultimately voted to accept the Ammann report.
Marin Board of Supervisors also voted to leave the BART District for good in May 1962, believing the county missed their political window. A week later, they overturned their vote in an attempt to recoup taxes the county paid to the BART District when they were members and hope they can stay as second-phase contestants. BART District officials, unamused by the flip-flop, rejected their petition. Marin would be kicked out of the BART District for good.31
Arthur C. Jenkins, Bus Man
On November 6, 1962, the BART District referendum went on the ballot in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The measure — which needed 60% YES votes total from the three counties — squeaked through with a 61.21% YES vote. BART secured a $792 million bond measure, and tolls from the Bay Bridge would kick in to finance the Transbay Tube construction.32
BART’s honeymoon period was extremely short. A week after the vote, BART was quagmired into an expensive, lengthy lawsuit from taxpayer groups who alleged BART illegally used public funds to influence the voters. Once construction finally started after, BART ran into numerous cost and management issues. One federal analysis noted “there was a dramatic contrast in BARTD’s relationship with the Bay Area community before and after the referendum. The honeymoon with the voters was over within weeks of the election.”33
In a sense, Jenkins and Adam’s biggest concerns about BART were realized, as cost overruns shrouded BART in controversy. The two would continue a close-knit political relationship overseeing the Golden Gate Highway and Bridge District for several more years. Adam, who ran the district since 1954, developed a reputation as a “feudal” and “despotic” boss, according to the San Francisco Examiner.34 Adam was forced to resign in 1968 after years of fighting allegations of racism and hiring discrimination practices by the bridge district and Adam personally.35 Adam left with a uniform reputation, from supporters and critics alike, as a man who fought tooth and nail for the bridge district’s independence.36
By the time Adam resigned, Jenkins took a step back working as a consulting engineer for the bridge district. He was tasked with solving what to do with Marin County’s growing traffic issues, especially around the Golden Gate Bridge bottleneck, after the county was kicked out of the BART District. In 1968, Jenkins submitted his mass transportation solution in the only manner he knew: “survival by rubber tires.” He calculated and outlined the cost and logistics of the bridge district running a commuter bus system connecting San Francisco and Marin via the bridge. Facing heavy politic pressures from Sacramento eager to reform the bridge district after Adam and the board’s litany of alleged misconduct, both the bridge district and the newly formed (after the BART debacle) Marin County Transportation District quickly signed onto Jenkins’ plan, creating a commuter bus system which continues to this day as Golden Gate Transit.37
I sympathize at parts with Arthur C. Jenkins. Reading Dyble’s tightly packed and informative biography of him, Jenkins comes across as a smart engineer, a shrewd political operative and a man of conviction, shaped by his experiences. During Jenkins’ formative early career, he was in direct contact with many private streetcar networks who were falling apart and falling behind the automobile. Dyble herself clarifies the plight of private streetcar networks at the time as such:38
A widespread misconception exists that well-functioning streetcar systems were intentionally put out of business by a conspiratorial alliance of tire and auto manufacturers in the 1940s and 1950s…In reality, many streetcar companies were never reliably profitable, and they suffered from overcapitalization, inadequate maintenance, and poor service. They were unpopular with riders who often viewed their operators as monopolistic opportunists, and they were regulated by public officials who responded to public pressure to keep fares low regardless of financial circumstances.
I can understand Jenkins as a man so disillusioned with the state of private rail transit. But his disillusionment extended far into believing that all rail transit was doomed to fail in the same manner as private streetcars did during his career.
For any public transit users or advocates in the Bay Area, it is very hard to reconcile with the immense impact Jenkins bestowed the region of the present day. Traffic woes around the Golden Gate Bridge bottleneck still continue, nearly a half-century later. BART into Marin County is still a dream many locals still harbor, despite accepted resignation it will likely never happen in their lifetimes. Not only would the Marin extension drastically reshape the North Bay, it would have reshaped San Francisco (especially on the western half), the BART network as a whole and the Bay Area urban fabric in its totality. The Marin extension was absolutely and realistically possible up until 1962. Had it not been a man of Jenkins’ conviction at his position of influence standing in the way, we may be discussing a wholly different BART.
Historical reflections of postwar urban planning decisions are tinged with confusion and trauma, filled with lamentations on how could our predecessors raze their own cities to such devastating effects. While it was political bodies and institutions who called the shots to reshape countless American cities, it is helpful and oddly refreshing to know and meet the decision-makers like Jenkins, and to learn of them as individuals to better understand their thoughts, however heinous it may be upon hindsight.
And let’s take the what-ifs one step further: is BART on the Golden Gate Bridge still possible? Assuming no major technical changes to either BART or the bridge since the 1960s, let’s examine which of the four engineering feasibility reports would be closer to the impartial truth: 1956 BART report (feasibility: YES) may be too biased toward BART; the 1961 Paine report (feasibility: NO) was a hatchet job by Jenkins and Adam; and the 1962 Ammann report (feasibility: NO) has several dubious holes in the engineers’ experience and deep personal connections to the bridge district.
The 1959 Steinman report arguably may be the cleanest report of the four. The report concluded BART on the Golden Gate Bridge was absolutely feasible. Can it be still?
My hopes from this piece are that readers find Dyble’s history on this important topic as illuminating as I found it to be. I recognize this history may not paint the full picture, but I found it to be consistent with the versions already laid out by BART, Healy and local media outlets. I do not consider this the definitive history but rather a new major piece of the puzzle — a perhaps hair-rippingly maddening one. History of this niche at this depth and detail are rarely clean, flattering or magnanimous. It usually leaves readers with more questions than answers.
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Healy, Michael C. BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, Heyday, Berkeley, CA, 2016, pp. 48–49.
Dyble, Louise Nelson. Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2009, pp. 130.