BART’s Radar Dreams

Who knew BART had teamed up with the Defense Department and a major corporate purveyor of war machines to revamp the subway system?

Yeah, it sounds crazy-weird, but it's true — in fact, the collaboration is the subject of a mammoth multimillion-dollar lawsuit currently wending its way through the federal courts.

Check it: Way back in 1993 BART signed a deal with Hughes Aircraft (think: missiles and warplanes) and an engineering firm to design and build a new radar-based system to guide subway trains. The endeavor was initially funded by a $19.5 million grant from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the military eggheads who brought us the Internet (good, right?) and tried to bring us Total Information Awareness (that creepy plan to use supercomputers to mine our personal data — not so good).

In the 13 years since the deal was struck, the project has degenerated into a world-class boondoggle. Hughes, which has since been bought out and renamed, bailed out early on. The Pentagon money then got funneled to another firm, a subsidiary of General Electric, which, BART claims, did a shoddy job, misled BART staffers into approving unsafe equipment, and, finally, quit work before creating a functional system.

The subway system is now suing GE in a bid to recover the $80 million in taxpayer loot blown thus far on the project. (On a side note, court documents show that BART is also demanding GE provide “evidence” — namely “resumes with references” — proving that key engineers who worked on the project were “qualified.” Uh, aren't you supposed to check people's CVs before you hire them?)

James Fang, who sits on BART's board of directors, is angry about the situation, referring to GE as a bunch of “cretins.” “They've basically defrauded BART and the riding public,” complains Fang, adding that no usable technology has thus far emerged from the project.

GE spokesperson Patrick Jarvis has refuted the allegations, telling Bloomberg News Service, “Despite our best effort, we have not been able to resolve this dispute,” and saying the company was considering legal action of its own.

Meanwhile, as Bay Area commuters are well aware, BART hasn't been the picture of Mussolini-style efficiency of late, as major snafus have repeatedly shut down trains this spring and summer. That, however, can't be blamed on GE: BART spokesperson Linton Johnson says the long-delayed train-control system wouldn't have prevented the service disruptions.

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