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Did Marin lose out on BART?

By Mark Prado

As the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency struggles to establish service in Marin, some think the county already should have had a commute train: BART.

Bay Area Rapid Transit trains zooming across a lower deck of the Golden Gate Bridge delivering thousands of workers to and from San Francisco and points beyond almost was a reality, but it was undone by what some believe was last-minute politics almost 50 years ago.

BART backers still bemoan the loss of the rapid transit system in Marin, saying the county lost out on being a part of a vibrant regional transportation network.

"Marin really missed out on something tremendous," said San Francisco State University anthropology professor Niccolo Caldararo, a former Fairfax councilman who still would like to see BART in the county. "Can you imagine how easy it would have been to get to San Francisco? The idea that it would have spurred growth is a red herring. It would have been controlled."

Not so, says Supervisor Steve Kinsey. He believes BART would have led to unprecedented growth that would have transformed Marin into an East Bay-like suburb.

"It would have been a bad thing because we did not have the land protections in place in the early 1960s when BART was being discussed," said Kinsey, Marin's point person on key regional transportation issues. "BART is a great system, but it is meant for high-density urban communities. We would have seen sprawl development."

Marin never got to find out.

Marin - along with San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties - was part of the planned service area as BART studies were launched in the 1950s. Marin even spent $225,000 on planning - a fortune by today's standards.

Maps were drawn for BART in Marin showing stations in Sausalito, Mill Valley, Corte Madera, Santa Venetia with a possible extension to Ignacio. A 1956 poll found 87.7 percent of Marin residents wanted BART in the county.

A 1955 study by the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission found that the Golden Gate Bridge was capable of handing BART trains on a lower deck, and a second study in 1961 affirmed the conclusion.

But behind the scenes, plans for BART over the Golden Gate Bridge didn't sit well with some, said Louise Nelson Dyble, author of "Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge." Bridge district officials didn't like the idea of having BART on its span, potentially cutting into its toll base. It shopped around for an engineer who would say trains on the span would not work, she said.

"Those who led the board were very much opposed to having BART cross the bridge," said Dyble, an assistant professor of history at Michigan Technological University.

They hired Clifford Paine, one of bridge designer Joseph Strauss' engineers, to assess the feasibility of BART on the span. He concluded it would not work, saying the added weight would stress cables and cause the span to sag enough to be in violation of Navy clearance regulations.

Later, an engineering board of review was commissioned to review all the studies and it also announced rail was not feasible, but Dyble noted the bridge district paid for the panel's expenses and fees.

Dreams of BART in Marin took another hit when San Mateo County pulled out of the plan, saying costs were too high. Additionally, San Mateo County had Southern Pacific commuter trains - which later morphed into Caltrain - to meet local demands.

With San Mateo out, the tax base to support the BART plan was significantly weakened. Marin's small population would not provide much tax base to support the project with San Mateo County no longer in the plan.

BART officials also worried that Marin voters - faced with conflicting bridge studies - might vote against the plan believing they might never see service.

"There was a big concern that Marin might vote it down and if that happened that could have killed the entire proposal," Dyble said, noting votes from all the BART counties were tallied as one.

With those concerns, BART directors asked the Marin County Board of Supervisors to vote the county out of the system.

"There is one significant difference - (San Mateo) withdrew voluntarily," Supervisor Peter Behr said at the time Marin withdrew in May 1962. "We are withdrawing involuntarily and upon request."

After that vote, Marin tried to get back in before the November election, but BART officials rejected the idea and the county was locked out of the system, Dyble said.

Without BART, the bridge district later started bus and ferry service to serve Marin commuters.

After talk again arose about BART in Marin, a 1990 study concurred with the first studies in the 1950s that the bridge could handle trains, although by then a change in the span's roadway had made the span lighter.

By 1990, a BART extension to Marin was estimated cost $3 billion and the plan was shelved - likely forever.

In 2008, Marin and Sonoma voters approved a sales tax increase to establish commuter rail service between Larkspur and Cloverdale. Some SMART service is expected to start in 2014, but the agency has a $155 million deficit and it is unclear when the 70-mile route will be completed.

That system has been criticized as a "train to nowhere" because it doesn't reach San Francisco, something BART would have done.

"People didn't realize what a momentous opportunity it was," said Greg Minor, who grew up in Greenbrae and has written about BART in Marin as he studies city planning at the University of California at Berkeley. "We may have seen more people get out of their cars to commute, more affordable housing around these stations and a more vibrant cultural environment. Marin missed out."

Contact Mark Prado via e-mail at mprado@marinij.com.

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