Journey to the Center of BART

BART officials scare the shit out of us; local rock legend Paul Kantner says S.F. tap water tastes like shit

"What I'd like to do here," said David Schwartz, an earthquake geologist standing before a herd of media on the platform of the Embarcadero BART station, "is give a feeling of where we are in our earthquake cycle and what looms ahead." It was around 1 a.m. Friday, and we were waiting to take a rare peek at the Bay Area's great umbilical cord, the 30-year-old Transbay Tube. In a few minutes, the tour, led by BART officials and earthquake engineers, would carry us to a cool, grimy spot about a half-mile from the station, where we would get a primer on one possible plan to retrofit the tube. But listening to Schwartz's debriefing, Dog Bites realized the real reason BART wanted the media here: to scare the shit out of us.

Schwartz gestured at a graphic of Bay Area fault lines, crawling like a set of bony fingers across the map. "These faults," he said, "give a combined probability of 62 percent in the next 30 years that we'll have a magnitude 6.7 or larger, within or near the urban center. ... The bottom line is, we really do have large earthquakes in our near future. The region really has to do whatever it can to prepare and mitigate these earthquakes that have happened in the past and" -- here we're fairly certain he held a flashlight under his chin -- "that are definitely going to happen in the future." Mwahahahahaha.

Of course, there was another motive behind this briefing. BART, which is considering a November ballot measure that would fund retrofitting, wants to convince the public of the system's need for an expensive seismic upgrade. One civil engineer told the media before the tour, "This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed," which he repeated a sentence or two later, and then added, "It's a serious problem," and then, "This problem needs to be fixed." If not, we were told, a major earthquake could cripple the tube and the rest of the BART system for three years, which would snarl traffic around the Bay Area and cost the business community tens of millions of dollars. (No mention of death tolls in the BART system, but we're gonna have a longer commute.) "Unfortunately," said BART Director Lynette Sweet, over the ominous rumble of an incoming Muni train, "not everyone in the Bay Area is prepared to survive the next earthquake."

At about 1:30, a guy in charge of safety prepped the media for our trip to the earthquake joint, which was beginning to feel like a creep through a haunted house. "You're going to be entering an area that's very secure -- we don't even let most BART employees go down there," he said, adding that we should heed the people in the neon-green vests, mind our step on the tracks, and, most important, always avoid the third rail. "Don't touch it, don't sit on it, don't put your foot up and tie your shoe or anything like that."

We were ushered into a BART train, where, inevitably, someone shouted, "Who brought the canary?" And within minutes, we were walking along a catwalk in the dry, dusty air of the tube, dark but for a few jittery flashlights and the glow of the TV cameras. From here, roughly 70 feet beneath the water's surface, we could see the tube hurtling deeper into the bay. "You're now standing at one of the earthquake joints for the Transbay Tube," a civil engineer named Tom Horton announced from the tracks, pointing out the device above his head. The joint connects the underground tunnel to the tube; during a quake, it allows for a few inches of movement in any direction. "Unfortunately," Horton said, "our analysis shows that the movements we're going to get [in the next earthquake] are much larger than the joint is designed to take." In other words, a big earthquake could easily pop the tube out of its joint. (To reduce its movement, the retrofit would compact the soil that holds down the tube.)

This, naturally, led to a few paranoid questions: Will it leak? Will it flood? "Yes, you could get leakage," Horton said, "and you could get flooding." At least that'ssettled.

The tour ended a few minutes later, still long before dawn, and the BART folks had done their job: We were consumed with thoughts of apocalypse. Just before we were hustled back onto the train, one of the green jackets turned to us. Over the din of the crowd, in the spooky half-light of the tube, she said softly: "Do you hear that echo? Pretty wild." (Tommy Craggs)

The Dog Bites Interview: Paul Kantner, Water Critic

There are, it seems, other troubling things in the water besides BART tubes. Last week, local luminary Paul Kantner (founding member of Jefferson Airplane, frontman for Starship) sent an urgent e-mail to SF Weeklycomplaining about San Francisco's tap water. "The taste has become like some Stephen King 'dark thing,' particularly in my overnight water glass where it goes flat and dead," he wrote. Moved to concern, and hoping for a teary, Behind the Music-style exchange, Dog Bites phoned the rock legend and spoke with him about the crisis.

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