BART's first employee, former General Manager B.R. Stokes, passes away
Stokes (left) with President Richard M. Nixon and
his wife, Pat, in September 1972.
By Mike Healy
Former BART Spokesman
Former BART General Manger B.R. (Bill) Stokes passed away peacefully Wednesday, May 15, at his daughter’s home in Sammamish, Wash. He was 89. Stokes was considered a pioneer in the advancement of public transit, achieving national and international acclaim. Joan, his wife of 61 years, died in 2011 in their home in Reston, Va.
In early 1958, not long after a five-county BART District was created by the state Legislature, Stokes became its first employee as Director of Information. He was 34 at the time. The previous 12 years he had been an Urban Affairs writer for the Oakland Tribune, often writing about the need for a regional rapid transit system during the postwar building boom. In his new job he immediately set about establishing the fledgling transit district as a legitimate endeavor, though many at the time didn’t believe it. The five counties making up the District were Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo. Between 1958 and 1962 Stokes’ primary responsibility was to develop and carry out a comprehensive information program about the rapid transit plan and its potential benefits to the Bay Area.
Early in 1962 when a final Composite Report detailing the plan was published by BART’s consulting engineers, Parsons Brinckerhoff-Tudor-Bechtel, two counties dropped out of the District, San Mateo and Marin. Stokes then concentrated his and his small staff’s information program on the voters of the three remaining counties. He is credited with almost singlehandedly bringing about voter approval for the project in the Nov. 6 , 1962 election. In that election 61.2 percent of the voters agreed to tax themselves to build the new system through a general obligation bond referendum for $792 million. Also in 1962, Stokes was promoted to Assistant General Manager and the following year named General Manager by the BART Board of Directors, replacing the District’s first general manager, John Pierce.
It was considered a bold move by many observers. Longtime President of the BART Board of Directors Adrian J. Falk believed that Stokes’ vision, drive and determination made him the perfect choice for the job even though he was not an engineer. He was General Manager for 11 years from 1963 to 1974. During those years he guided the project through some very rocky times, particularly during the late ‘60s when double-digit inflation had eaten away at the muscle of the dollar. Fearing that the project could not be finished without an additional $150 million, Stokes along with local officials and business leaders worked with the state Legislature to find a solution. In 1969 the state Legislature passed a bill authorizing a temporary half percent sales tax to be levied in the three District counties against which bonds could be sold.
A few weeks after BART first opened, Sept. 11, 1972, Stokes accompanied President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon on a train ride from San Leandro to Lake Merritt. It was an historic occasion for the new transit system.
Following his BART years, Stokes took on the leadership of the newly formed American Public Transportation Association (APTA) headquartered in Washington, D.C. As APTA’s Executive Director from 1974 to 1980 Stokes was instrumental in bringing about a greatly expanded federal commitment in support of public transit as well as several other accomplishments on behalf of the industry. In the years that followed he became Director General of the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Co. involving several cities in Saudi Arabia.
Born in Oklahoma in 1924, Billy Richard Stokes was an officer aboard a destroyer during World War II. After the Navy and college he went to work for the Oakland Tribune. He is survived by four children: Timothy Stokes of Berkeley; Leigh Stokes of Sammamish, Wash.; Lindsey Stokes of Santa Rosa; and Celia Stokes of Frederick, Md.; and six grandchildren.