Podcast: The dramatic history of BART is now a new book


Podcast: The dramatic history of BART is now a new book

In our latest episode of "Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART" we sit down with former BART chief spokesman Mike Healy to relive the history of the transit agency.  Healy has written a new book entitled “BART:  The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.”  Healy started his tenure with BART back in 1971 and spent several decades as the public face of BART.  He offers a unique perspective on the transit agency’s colorful history as someone who personally experienced much of it.

Transcript below:

HOST:  “Welcome to our latest edition of “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”  I’m Chris Filippi and this is no doubt going to be one of my favorite version of this podcast because today I get to talk with Mike Healy.  Mike started working for BART back in the early 70s and spent decades as the public face of the agency as the chief spokesman.  I actually got to talk with Mike in my early days as a reporter so this is a good flashback for me too.  Now he’s written a book entitled “BART:  The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System” and he’s here to talk about it.  Mike that you so much for your time with this.”

HEALY: “It’s my pleasure, Chris.”Mike Healy

HOST: “You really are the perfect person to tell this story.  You started with BART back in 1971, it was quite a ride for you.”

HEALY: “Well actually my first day on the job was November 15th, 1971 and I’ll never forget it because I was in the office early and within a few minutes I got my first media call from the San Diego Union telling me there was a strike by the ROHR company, which was supplying the BART cars and how was that going to effect the opening date and they’d like a comment.  And of course I said…I’ll get back to you.”

HOST: “Interesting from the very beginning.  Of course BART started service back in 1972 but you really can trace the history much further back than that.  For you where do you feel like the idea of BART got its origination?”

HEALY: “That’s a great question, Chris.  The genesis of BART really began with an Army-Navy report back in 1947 but it really even further than that.  Actually back to the 1860s when Emperor Norton was wondering around the streets of San Francisco.  Everybody thought he was crazy or just some eccentric, he used to dress up like a general and he claimed to be the protector of Mexico and the United States.  Anyway, he actually sent a memo to the San Francisco Chronicle, I believe it was the Chronicle at the time or the Examiner I think it was the Chronicle, outlining his proposal for a tunnel under the Bay between San Francisco and Oakland and he also called for a bridge as well back in those days and that’s probably the first time that anyone thought of the idea of going under the Bay to create a transit corridor.”

HOST: “You go back into the history it seems like it’s been a challenge even from before the beginning to bring BART into reality.  As you look at those early days especially as the state Legislature started to get involved creating a commission to really study this idea, you look at the regional dynamics involved with trying to get the BART system up and going.  As you look at that time, what do you see as some of the greatest challenges that had to be overcome to make BART a reality.”

HEALY: “Well I think first of all public opinion, this is the post war years in the Bay Area and population was growing exponentially because a lot of the soldiers had come through and they loved the area and they came back, brought their families and transportation was going to be a very important factor in the growth of the Bay Area.  But there was a lot of pushback too.  There were a lot of people who said oh no we don’t want, they had a Key system at the time which was running but it was really like a streetcar system.  It was regional in nature but it wasn’t what I’d call a high-speed system.  But it was good for its time.  Anyway, a lot of people said we don’t want to pay for a new system and that was one of the major things that was kind of a deterrent to trying to get BART off the ground.  There was a guy back in the early days called Marv Lewis, Marvin Lewis, and I consider him an early pioneer in getting BART started. He was one of the first people to get a hold of the Army-Navy report coming out in 1947, which called for building a tunnel or a tube under the Bay to carry high-speed trains.   And the reason for this report that had been started actually before the war then was put aside and they got back to it after the war was because the military was concerned about the bridge and if anything ever happened to it during a war they would need some way to move troops back and forth between the East Bay and West Bay and that was really one of their reasons and they said it could be connect up with the Key system.  But Marvin Lewis had another idea and he thought this could really be the key to building a real regional rapid transit system very similar to what they have in the east like New York or the Long Island Railroad, those kind of things.”

HOST: “This book that you’ve written really isn’t just about a transit system, it’s about the people.  You mention Marvin Lewis another very interesting name that comes up early on is Bill Stokes, the first employee of BART.  Now tell me about him, he was a newspaper guy at first, right?”

HEALY “When Bill Stokes came out of the Navy he had been trained as a journalist and he went to work for the Oakland Tribune as a feature writer for urban affairs and he got very interested in transportation.  So he broke a lot of articles about the possibility of building a regional rail transit system in the Bay Area. Adrian Falk who was the second president of the BART Board at the time liked what Bill was writing and he brought him on as the first employee of BART as an information officer.  Then the general manager of the time was a guy named Pierce.  Then Bill was promoted to assistant general manager, very small staff at the time and I think they were all I think ensconced in the Flood Building in San Francisco.  Bill became assistant general manager I believe it was in ’62 somewhere in there and then no actually it was ’61 or ’62, anyway her was assistant general manager at that time and became general manager after the referendum in 1962 that provided the initial funding to build the system.  One of the bold things about this plan by the way was that they were going to build a 75 mile system all at once.  That was unheard of.  Usually systems like this were built in segments and then built on in time would grow.  So Bill was really the general manager who guided the system through the construction period for the next 11 years up until the system opened and on to 1974.”

HOST”  “I’m speaking with Mike Healy, former chief spokesman for BART and we’re talking about his new book entitled ‘BART:  The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.’ Mike, from my read of this book it’s very obvious you really put your work into this.  This was an unbelievable effort that must have gone into it.  Talk about that work and how did you even come up with the idea that this was a story that needed to be told?”

HEALY: “Well actually the general manager at BART Grace Crunican and I had lunch one day and I was telling her some of the stories from the old days and she said you know Mike, you ought to write the story, the history of BART and I said I don’t write science fiction.  But you know as I got to think about there’s a great story to be told here. I knew where some of the bodies were buried and of course during my research I found a lot more but as I got into it it became a real labor of love.  And it took me two and a half years of research and writing and when I was finished I thought you know it’s a great story, it really is a great story.”

HOST: “And you mentioned Bill Stokes earlier, you tracked him down for an interview is that right?”

HEALY: “You know I was very fortunate.   Bill was getting up there in years and his wife had unfortunately passed a couple years before I started the project.  So I tracked him down up in Seattle and he was living with his daughter up there and I was lucky enough to get about four interviews, four or five interviews with him before he passed away the following year.  And those interviews supplied a lot of the great anecdotes that I was able to incorporate into the story.”

HOST: “And you mentioned the challenge of building a rail system all at once.  75 miles of track.  It’s very rare that that happens.  It seems like another issue that comes up is timing.  That many have questioned whether the system should have been built sooner, whether it may have been better to wait till later perhaps that could generate more public support for such an ambitious project where do you come down on that on the sense of time for BART?”

HEALY: “I would say that BART was actually perfectly timed.  If it had been before it would have been probably the same old kind of technology being used. If it was later it probably would have been a lot more expensive.  So I would say because BART was able to take advantage of aerospace technology at that time that had been developed during the space program again I’d say perfectly timed, it really was.  And it’s just one of those things that it’s really lucky that the bond issue passed in 1962 to provide the initial funding.   Had it not passed at that time they would have had to wait another two or four years and it would have cost a lot more.”

HOST: “And as you well know there was popular support in San Francisco, there was popular support in Alameda County.  Contra Costa County was where there was a lot of concern about what that vote tally was going to be when it came back.  It seems like that’s one of things that comes up is you have these regional rivalries that play a role throughout the history of BART.  So much fighting over local tax dollars and how they should be spent.  It seems like that rivalry was perhaps at its most vitriolic when it comes to Contra Costa County versus the other two.  Talk about that, is that something that has come up in BART’s history.”

HEALY: “Well Contra Costa, there was more push back in Contra Costa County ironically Contra Costa County probably benefits the most from the BART line out there.  What happened was in the outlying areas the plan that was presented called the composite report took BART out to Concord but there were areas beyond that in Pittsburg and Antioch and Brentwood and those areas were concerned they were going to pay taxes for BART and not get the service.  Their guy out there, a guy named Joe Silva was going to ultimately be the swing vote because BART knew that there were two votes for BART and two votes against BART to put it on the ballot for the 1962 referendum.  Anyway, Joe Silva was a question mark.  People did not know where he was going to come out on this and a lot of his constituents, and he was a supervisor by the way on the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, a lot of his constituents in the outlying area where he lived or he represented were really leaning on him hard to vote against this, that they did not want to be paying taxes for this system.  But ultimately Joe came around.  On the day of the vote and nobody knew what he was going to do, there’s a famous coffee shop story about this which I won’t get into now because it’s fairly long, but ultimately he was the swing vote and voted to put it on the ballot.  And his reasoning was let’s leave it up to the people to decide if they want the system or not.  Ultimately during the vote it failed in Contra Costa County not by much but it turned out that they averaged the vote between the three counties luckily and so it was a squeaker but it won.”

HOST: “And the rest is history.   Along with the track there was so much infighting over the stations and it seems like BART really made this effort to reach out to the communities to try to give them stations that they would be pleased with but there was a lot of pushback.  I’m thinking specifically of downtown Berkeley for example, that story jumped out at me.”

HEALY: “Well clearly Chris you’ve read the book.  Yes, there were always issues about station location particularly out in the Contra Costa area and the Berkeley situation was a little bit different.  BART’s plan was to run an aerial line through the city of Berkeley and there was a guy named Wally Johnson who was the mayor of Berkeley at the time and he was very much against it.  His business was scaffolding so he wanted the people to see what an aerial line might look like so he put up scaffolding to sort of represent what an aerial line would look like in parts of Berkeley.  And of course he really rallied the people there to be up in arms over this whole idea and he wanted BART to go underground.  So there was a lot of controversy about that for several years until the BART Board agreed to do it if Berkeley would hold their own referendum and pay for the difference between what the composite report called for in terms of cost estimate and what it would cost to put the system underground.  Frankly I think it was a great move.  I think Berkeley was absolutely right in doing that and when you look back on it now who would want an aerial line running across Berkeley, it’s crazy.  And there was a lot of consideration for social aspects of that that you would have a dividing line between North Berkeley and West Berkeley or East Berkeley and West Berkeley.”

HOST: “I would just think going back to that time it was really important to get community buy in.  You really wanted to build that public support for this system that seems like such a part of our lives we take it for granted but it was very new back then.”

HEALY: “Absolutely.  One of the things that happened was that some of the engineering estimates were way beyond what people thought it would cost to build this underground line and as it turned out it was a lot less and the people of Berkeley I think paid an extra $12.5 million something like that to put it underground.”
HOST: “I’m speaking with former BART Chief Spokesman Mike Healy talking about his new book entitled ‘BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.’  A very appropriate title because there have been many dramatic moments.  There have been scandals in the history of BART and you really take an honest look at these throughout your book. I mean there have been cases where the FBI has been involved with BART, tell us about that.”

HEALY: “Well I name names.  Yes, I can recall a time when I was sitting in my office one day and I got a call from the office of Dick Demko who was here and he was acting general manager because general manager Keith Barnard was off on leave at the time.  So he asked for me to come up and meet with him and also the head of labor relations, a guy named Larry Williams. So the two of us go up there we meet with Dick and Dick said ‘I don’t know what’s going on but the three of us have been requested to go meet with the FBI at the Concord office.’  We go out there and we meet with a guy named Drew Eppie, I think that was his name.  We go into this building and we go up to the fourth floor whatever it was and it’s a totally unmarked door but all we knew was the number of the suite.  We knock on the door guy opens up and says ‘yes can I help you,’ we say well we’ve been asked to come here.  So they let us in, gave us some coffee and we’re sitting there for several minutes wondering what’s going on here and then Drew Eppie I think it was came in, sat down with us and said ‘well I just want to let you know that right now we’re in the midst of raiding your offices in Oakland and arresting several people and that’s what is going on.’ And the reason for it was there were some scams going on with these guys who could let, middle managers, who could let contracts up to $10,000.  So they were taking money under the table from vendors who wanted contracts.  So the FBI set up a sting operation and they set up their own little company, a maintenance company, they paid a bribe under the table to these guys and then of course they were then arrested.  I actually read the transcript from the tape they put under this table to catch the discussion over the whole thing.  Yes, anyway it happened.”

HOST: “You had been with BART since 1971 the good and the bad.  What stands out to you?  What for you was the darkest day for BART during your time with the transit agency?”

HEALY: “No question the 1979 was the darkest year for two reasons.  One the Transbay Tube fire, which happened on January 17th, and we had to deal with that over several months and it was a very controversial issue.   BART had to go through a lot of paces with the fire department to bring a lot of things up to what probably should have been happening in the first place.  One of the things that was discovered was that the polyurethane material used in the cars and in the seat cushions and the floors of the cars were toxic when burning.  And even though they were considered to be somewhat fire resistant they really weren’t that much.  So BART when through a $40 million program to upgrade the system change out all of the material and did a lot of testing.  We tested at McDonald Douglass labs down in Southern California various materials that could be used.  Finally came up with one that could be substituted for the polyurethane and offer the same strength and the same properties that were needed.  But that was a really tough time.  I was really on the frontline of that the whole time.  Following that was a major labor dispute that lasted several months and shut BART down for almost three months.  And we actually provided some service with management, very limited service during that period.  But there were all kinds of things going on.  There was some sabotage that took placed out at the Concord yard and then there was a situation when some of the union people took over the Concord shop and they were getting food from helicopter drops.  I remember there was one time when I was invited to be on a radio show with Art Finley of KGO radio and I was only going to be on for a half hour to talk about some various general issues but then we got into the labor issue and I ended up being on the show for three hours and while I was on the show we got a call from Paul Varacalli who was the head of SEIU 390 at the time and he was executive secretary of the union and he called up and said ‘hey Mike we’re in the shop you got to get us out of here’ and I said all you have to do is unchain the door from the inside and of course he said he can’t do that.  Anyway it finally took a court order to get them out of there.”

HOST: “It’s incredible to think about really when we have a labor dispute now or any sort of a work stoppage it’ll go for a few days and it’s absolute Armageddon on the roadways.  To think that there were labor stoppages in the past that lasted for three months it’s almost unthinkable to think of what that would mean for the Bay Area now.”

HEALY: “Well it would turn the Bay Area into a parking lot basically.  It’s unthinkable.  There has to be a way to work closely with the unions to try and avoid these kinds of things and I know BART has always really come to the table and tried to negotiate and at the same time of course trying to adhere to a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers.  And it’s a delicate balance and it has been since the very beginning.  What a lot of people don’t know about the labor situation at BART was that in the early days that’s going back to 1972 the bargaining units were set up by the state through a labor lawyer named Sam Cagle.  And Sam basically set the bargaining units and there was organizing that went on and SEIU organized the employees and in a way BART is very lucky, very lucky to have SEIU as their primary union representing a lot of the maintenance and various crafts people.  Otherwise you would have had 18 unions to deal with instead of one union so a lot of people don’t realize that.  One of the things that happened was 13-C.  Now most people won’t know what 13-C is but it required that when a new agency like BART came on the scene they would have impact and they would probably have impact on the other agencies.  So BART was required to hire people who applied from other agencies like San Francisco Muni, Greyhound, Peerless Stage, AC Transit and if these people had longevity with their own unions they probably came over with a salary of lets say $20,000 a year whereas BART train operators and station agents were making $12,000 a year, twelve five.  So that set up a situation where the unions of course were calling for parity, equal pay for equal work.  It took about three years to get there but there was a strike in ’73 to basically start the ball rolling on that idea and that’s really where it all began.”

HOST: “Labor stoppages, the Transbay Tube fire some of the darker times but one of the highlights I would think must have been how the system survived the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and how quickly service was restored and just such a critical moment for the Bay Area.  Please share your reflections of that time.”

HEALY: “I would say that BART was really heroic in that respect.  We were for a month the only game in town in terms of direct service between San Francisco and Oakland until the bridge was repaired.  As a result of that BART’s ridership suddenly a lot of new people discovered BART and our ridership went up considerably and stayed there because the experience was good people had a good experience on BART.  BART was actually back in operation in 24 hours, something like that.  Now we have to go through a process where we go out and inspect the tracks and we make sure that everything is ok and no significant damage anywhere and that turned out to be true and BART was really a survivor.  And as a result of that BART also got a great editorial in the Los Angeles Times saying this was BART’s finest hour and then I had actually contacted a congressman that I knew named Don Edwards, the late Don Edwards, and asked him if he could put us in the Congressional record and he did.  So that was great.”

HOST: “What other highlights stand out to you in your time?”

HEALY: “Oh there are so many.  There are some fund things.  In the late 80s I hired comedian Henny Youngman.”

HOST: “Yes! I remember those ads.  I saw them, take your BART please.”

HEALY: “Henny worked for me for two years.  So he did two major campaigns, one in ‘87 and one in ‘88 I think.  We were trying to boost ridership and primarily aiming at mid-day ridership.  We wanted to build up non-commute ridership and those ads helped immensely.  They were very popular, I was amazed at how great they were because I remember when I proposed this program, it was part of an overall marketing effort, proposed Henny to do these ads in a staff meeting one day up on the fifth floor and the executives were all gathering and I was head of media and public affairs at the time and people looked at me and said, ‘what are you crazy, I mean what demographic are we going after?’ I said you know Henny is universal and I think it will work and it did.  It really turned out to be a great campaign and Henny was very funny. When we first met we talked it over and he said well can I say ‘Take BART and my wife please’ and I said no I think ‘Take your BART please’ is enough and people will get the message.”

HOST: “That was very memorable, I remember those ads. I’m speaking with former BART chief spokesman Mike Healy about his new book entitled ‘BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.’  You know Mike, technology and BART go hand in hand.  BART has always aspired to be on the cutting edge and that’s certainly true with the design of the cars.  An aerospace company, I don’t think a lot of people know that, an aerospace company  actually designed the cars.”

HEALY: “Yes, Rohr Industries was the low bidder and they also, the design of the car was actually done by a company called Sundberg-Ferar out of I think Michigan, I think they’re out of Michigan as I recall.  Anyway, they were a industrial design firm that specialized in these kinds of things and they came up with design of the new car with the slope nose.  And the whole idea of the slope nose was to give it a space age look because that was all part of the market of BART, the selling of BART.  And that was very important because you’re competing with the automobile in the Bay Area and in those days the automobile was king.  People love their automobiles and trying to get them out of the automobiles into rapid transit was going to be a challenge and that was really part of that challenge to make BART look like it was really this new space age kind of system.”

HOST: “It has that high-tech aspect to it throughout.  Just look at the way the trains are run through the automatic train control system.  I’ve been to that center, it looks like something from NASA but it’s running our trains here in the Bay Area.”

HEALY: “Well that’s right.  As a matter of fact George Lucas loved it and used it one of his very first films THK-1138 and other parts of the system as well.  The Transbay Tube, which was not yet open but it had these rings before they put the track in the concrete slab and the track in and looked like a ladder so you could climb it.  So he had his protagonist, Robert Duvall, climb along, he was actually horizontal and then they turned the camera so it looked like he was climbing up on this tunnel and it worked very well.  But it was that space age look that George Lucas loved about BART.”

HOST: “So much trial and error throughout the entire process.  Some very low tech challenges vert early on, I read that gophers were a challenge at one point.”

HEALY: “Yes, they ate the cables along the Hayward, I think it was along the Hayward area down there.  They ate the cables and so they had to put in concrete conduit and replace the cables.  That of course hit the press.”

HOST: “So many interesting ideas of how to market BART.  You mentioned Henny Youngman.  At one point companies could actually charter a BART car, tell me about that idea and when that came about.”

HEALY: “That came about in the early eighties.  You could actually charter a train for a party.  One of the caveats of that was you can’t have alcohol and of course a lot of these parties they wanted alcohol however it didn’t really stop the alcohol from flowing.  I remember a very famous punch bowl and which one of our directors tried it out and he was feeling no pain by the time he got off that train.”

HOST: “Now did I read that the producers of the Simpsons reached out to you at one point?”

HEALY: “Yes, that’s an interesting story.  That was in the very early 90s and I got a call or I was contacted by the producers of this new show called the Simpsons, it hadn’t aired yet, and so they sent me a book which was really a wonderful book that had illustrations of all the characters, what their personalities were and they said we’d like to tie in with BART because of the name BART and BART Simpson.  So I read through this book and I said ‘well you know the problem is that Bart Simpson’s character is that he’s really a low achiever or a non-achiever and kind of irascible.’  So I said no, I don’t think we really want to tie in with this and so I didn’t and of course the rest is history.  The show is still running today all these year’s later it’s amazing, amazing.  And by the way Matt Groening who created the character actually sent me a poster with an inscription made out to my son which was very nice of him.  He did it through channel 2 I mean through Fox.”

HOST: “Very nice touch.  We touched on the high points and the low points earlier.  For you looking back on your time what are you most proud of when it comes to BART?”

HEALY: “Well I’m really proud of the fact that BART turned out to be a really great system and so important to the Bay Area.  It’s probably one of the reasons I stayed with BART all those years.  It was never my intention to get into the transit business.  But I really feel that with all of the hulabalo over whether BART was going to be a boondoggle or was going to be beneficial to the Bay Area and it turns out that BART, I think the Bay Area today couldn’t live without BART.  I think that’s one of the prides that I take in my association with BART over the years.”

HOST: “And of course past is prologue.  People involved with BART, people in the broader community are going to be reading your book and learning all these great history lessons about this transit agency.  Going forward what can we learn from BART’s history as we move forward and try to take this transportation system forward?”

HEALY: “Well I use a quote in my preface at the end of the preface and it’s a quote from Mark Twain.  And I believe as I recall the quote it is ‘the way to do something or accomplish something is to get started.’  I think BART is still in a growth mode and it’s going down to San Jose now, I think possibly it could go out to Livermore at some point and also the I-80 corridor coming out of Richmond or out of El Cerrito going up to Sacramento those are all possible growth areas and some of the most congested corridors in the Bay Area in fact in the country.  So that’s certainly one possibility.  Of course we have the new cars coming in and BART is going to have a totally new look when those cars start running around on the tracks.”

HOST: “It’s a very exciting time.  Mike, such a pleasure to read your book ad even more so to talk to you today about it.  Thank you so much.”

HEALY: “Well thank you Chris and I’m glad you enjoyed the book.”

HOST: “That’s Mike Healy, former longtime spokesman for BART and I’m Chris Filippi.  You can get your copy of Mike’s newly released book “BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System: at Amazon. Thanks again for listening to “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.” Our podcast series is now available on SoundCloud, ITunes, Google Play, Stitcher and our website BART.gov.”