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BART's new fleet: Made in the USA, but maybe not in California

BART postcard from the 1970s. Image courtesy of BART.
BART postcard from the 1970s. Image courtesy of BART.

This year is BART’s 40th birthday. While some people swear that 40 is the new 30, when it comes to subway systems, 40 is just plain over-the-hill. About two-thirds of BART cars have been running the rails since the system opened, in 1972.

Paul Oversier is in charge of operations at BART. He says that because BART trains run long distances and at higher speeds than other subway systems, it gives the system a dubious distinction. “We have the oldest cars, and we run them the hardest,” he says.

It’s time for new trains. But building them won’t be cheap: BART estimates it will cost more than three billion dollars to replace all 775 cars.

Right now, three companies are in the running to build the new fleet. One is in France, one is in South Korea, and third is in Canada.

Scott Haggerty is an Alameda County Supervisor who sits on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He’s not surprised that bids for the massive job are coming in from all over the world, but he doesn’t think the world should build BART’s cars.

“At a minimum, those cars should be built in the US,” says Haggerty. “But that’s not even going to make me happy. Those cars should be built within the BART district.”

On paper, it makes sense. Building BART cars here would mean keeping those billions of dollars, and thousands of jobs, where BART riders actually live. According to BART’s Paul Oversier, there’s just one problem.

“There haven’t been any domestic subway car builders in the United States for decades,” he says.

Oversier says even if BART wanted to give the contract to a U.S. company, they couldn’t do it – the last domestic company that built subway cars closed up shop in 1987. But, he says, that doesn’t mean no Americans will benefit from the project. “It's really a misnomer to say the cars are being built overseas,” he says. “They're being built in the United States, using American parts, using American workers. It just so happens that the corporation that’s operating that plant is an international corporation.”

To understand how this works, you need to know about a law known as “Buy America.” It’s been around since 1983. 

Scott Paul is the executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, an industry group based in Washington DC. He says it doesn’t matter if a company is foreign or domestic, as long as the manufacture happens in the U.S.

“The idea is that through that taxpayer investment, we’ll be supporting jobs in this country as opposed to a place like China, for instance,” says Paul.

The idea of buying American has guided some of the country’s signature transportation projects. As far back as 1933, Congress required that federally financed construction projects use American materials.

“We’ve had this policy through the building of the interstate highway system,” says Paul. “Ronald Reagan actually expanded it to transit programs.”

Almost three-quarters of the money BART is using to pay for the new cars comes from the federal government. Under Buy America, that means whichever company gets the contract has to do at least 60% of that work in the U.S. But BART doesn’t get to decide where in the U.S. that work gets done––they have to go where the companies are. So while the cars could be built in California, BART can’t require that.

“There’s not an enormous demand for subway cars in the United States,” says Paul.  “So it doesn’t make a lot of sense for several manufacturers to have a permanent presence when the market is so sporadic and limited to just a few big city agencies.”

Right now, none of the car builders BART is considering have plants in California. That’s what bothers Supervisor Scott Haggerty. He thinks agencies like BART should be able to use federal dollars to do their projects in-state––and to encourage companies to set up new plants here. Right now, that’s illegal.

“But who set that rule?” asks Haggerty. “When you say it’s illegal, that’s because Congress said it’s illegal. Congress can fix that.”

Last year, BART officials sponsored legislation in California allowing them to give extra weight to bids from foreign companies that exceed Buy America requirements.

So now the agency can legally reward companies that create more American jobs. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s no infrastructure to do the work in California.

Right now, the car builders BART is considering have plants in New York and Philadelphia. “But that’s not to say that they might not open a plant somewhere else,” says BART’s Paul Oversier. “It’s a big enough order that the economics might be such for the car builders that it might make sense, from a business standpoint, to open a plant somewhere else. But that bridge will be crossed later on.”

BART expects final bids on the new cars by the end of February. The agency hopes to make a final recommendation to the board in about six weeks.