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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

San Francisco Bay Bridge Blues

Air Date: Week of

In California, there's a proposed referendum to take part of the San Francisco Bay Bridge away from auto lanes for mass transit. The debate ensues while the bridge continues to undergo reconstruction following the earthquake of a decade ago. Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson reports on the varying viewpoints towards decongesting one of America's busiest, and most scenic, roadways.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
The San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge is one of the busiest sections of roadway in America. A part of the bridge collapsed in an earthquake nearly 10 years ago, and the state of California is hoping it can get it replaced before the next big quake hits. But the planning process has been contentious, and now a last-minute fight has erupted. As Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson reports, the debate is over whether to take part of the bridge away from cars and give it to trains.

(Traffic sounds)

THOMSON: When a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, it threw the Bay area into chaos for weeks. The quake cut off the only direct highway link between congested San Francisco and the sprawling East Bay. But even under normal conditions, traffic rarely flows smoothly here. A day on the bridge can be one long rush hour, from before dawn until long after dark.

(Traffic and music)

THOMSON: Congestion and vulnerability to earthquakes have long been the dual plagues of the Bay Bridge. So, when talk began about replacing the quake-vulnerable part of the bridge, many people saw it as a chance to deal with congestion as well.

DEAN: We want to make sure that we've got a transit system, because mass transit can move people 10 times greater than if they're in a single occupant car.

(String quartet music plays in the background)

THOMSON: That's Shirley Dean, mayor of the city of Berkeley. She pushed to include a rail corridor in the new bridge plan, something which could carry several hundred thousand commuters a day between San Francisco and the East Bay and get almost as many cars off the bridge and off the rest of the region's highways. But when a plan for a new east span of the bridge was finally settled on earlier this year, it didn't include a rail link. The idea had been rejected as technically unfeasible and difficult to fund. So the Bay Area's bridge of the future would only be able to carry as many people as it does today. Mayor Dean was outraged.

DEAN: It's unbelievable to me that we would build a bridge of the current capacity and expect this bridge to serve the area for the next 150 years. We've just got to have some vision about how we're going to move people.

THOMSON: Now, in a last-ditch effort to revive the mass transit vision, Mayor Dean has joined her fellow mayors in San Francisco, Oakland, and the tiny city of Emeryville in sponsoring a non-binding referendum, asking voters to endorse a rail link on the bridge. Mayor Dean says the obstacles to a rail link are far from insurmountable, while congestion is strangling the Bay Area and polluting its air.

DEAN: It's an economic issue, it's an issue of quality of life for the East Bay. If future generations look back at us and they wonder who the idiots were that didn't make the right decisions about mass transit, that's a terrible legacy.

THOMSON: But opponents of the rail link think people like Mayor Dean who keep pushing the issue have lost track of the urgent need to build a new bridge.

KOPP: That bridge is not safe in the event of an earthquake.

THOMSON: San Francisco State Senator Quentin Kopp thinks it's folly to drag out the debate over the bridge any longer.

KOPP: If you stop now to redesign that new span, you're looking at a 2-year delay just for the design alone. Every day of delay places people at risk.

THOMSON: Mr. Kopp is chairman of the State Senate's Transportation Committee. He says he's a strong supporter of rail transit in general, but that after years of hearings, studies, and lobbying, this rail idea has lost. He says even if the design problems and the funding issues could be worked out, it's politically impossible, because building a rail link on the bridge would mean taking away at least 2 lanes from cars. And Senator Kopp says Bay Area drivers would never stand for that.

KOPP: It simply is infeasible to even visualize trying to do that. I've been making decisions that are based upon the will of the people as you try to gauge it together with common sense for 27 years, and I could tell you this would be the most painful process politically that I can imagine in the field of transportation.

THOMSON: Debates pitting highways against mass transit are the order of the day around the country. But this one strikes a deeper chord than usual, because many people here see the bridge project as a golden opportunity to undo a huge mistake made more than a generation ago.

(Soundtrack sounding music)

THOMSON: Newcomers to the area are often surprised to learn that when it was first built, there were trains on the Bay Bridge.

(Music continues; honking)

MAN: Let's take a little ride into history, across the bottom deck of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge via the Key System Electric Train.

(Music continues)

THOMSON: The Key System was one of 3 train lines which once operated on the bridge.

(A train whistle blows; more music)

THOMSON: It was a streetcar line that served San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley.

NARRATOR: The first train started running through it in January 16, 1939. Here comes a Key System train pulling into the terminal.

(Music continues; trains running on tracks)

THOMSON: Key System trains carried millions of commuters a year over the Bay Bridge for nearly 20 years. But by the late 50s the entire country was turning away from trains and betting its future on cars, and the Key System was shut down.

(Trains continue)

THOMSON: Today you can still detect the echo of the Key System in the broad streets of Oakland and Berkeley. A few of the old orange and silver cars even haunt the wheat fields 75 miles north of San Francisco.

(A door creaks, hydraulic sounds)

KLUVER: Come on, hop aboard here.

THOMSON: At the Western Railroad Museum in Rio Vista Junction, Bill Kluver and John Pleitnik tend to the memory of the Key System. They rode the trains as kids.

PLEITNIK: There was a great hue and cry about abandoning the trains. But at the time, you know, the freeway lobby and everybody else, they had much more say. Of course, the Key System was owned at the time by National City Corporations, which was owned by Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and what have you. And most of their operations they got rid of the streetcars and the trains and replaced them with buses.

(Honking noises)

THOMSON: Like dozens of other lines across the country, the Bay Bridge trains succumbed to the newfound economic, political, and cultural force of the automobile and the highway industry.

PLEITNIK: People wanted to drive. I mean, as Will Rogers said, America fell in love with the automobile, and it was a seduction. And of course, we are paying for that today.

THOMSON: Time stands still on these creaky old Key cars. But since their last run over the Bay Bridge, the region has been transformed. A frenzy of growth has paved over the old tracks and built upon the depots. Even if the public wanted to bring trains back to the bridge, it would be hard to find space for them on the ground.

KOPP: You can't go back and recreate history and undo that. And so you have to embark upon new strategy.

THOMSON: State Senator Quentin Kopp says it was a mistake to stop the trains 40 years ago. But he calls the movement to bring trains back to the bridge a trolley to the past. For Senator Kopp, the way forward should build upon what's in place now. More ferry boats, more buses, and yes, more trains, but on the subway line that now runs under the Bay. But many people here feel these things just can't keep up with the region's booming population, and that the Bay Area has to make a more dramatic shift to public transportation.

(Trains running on tracks)

NARRATOR: And from Poplar Street we turn onto Twelfth Street to downtown Oakland. Poplar Street was so rough, the locals used to say, "Swing and sway on the Key System way."

THOMSON: Even if it wins, the Bay Bridge referendum won't bring back the old Key System. It may not bring any new rail service at all; it's only an advisory question. But if it does pass, it may signal that at least in the Bay Area, residents are willing to take some space back from cars, and are no longer willing to let the future of their communities be dictated by bad decisions made in the past.

NARRATOR: Here we are in the edding to the crossover at Haven's Cook. This became the end of the line for the Key System.

(Trains on tracks)

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in Oakland.



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