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At BART's 16th & Mission Station, the Rapture Is Nigh

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A sign at the 16th Street/Mission BART station in San Francisco, where a street escalator was shut down for about three months.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Yes, San Francisco Mission District BART patrons, the escalator at the 16th Street station's beloved Burger King Plaza is back in operation.

It might seem like a stretch to call it a miracle. But at one point in the closure, which has lasted off and on since last Christmas, someone edited a sign at the escalator to read, "This unit will be out of service until The Rapture."

Cue choirs of angels: The fancy mechanical stairs that usually convey commuters down to the gate level from the station's northeast plaza are moving again. (Friday at midday, they were going up; the usual up escalator, to the station's southwest plaza, is also out of commission and awaiting "major repairs.")

Refuse accumulated on broken escalator at BART's 16th Street Station, March 2016.
Refuse accumulated on broken escalator at BART's 16th Street Station, March 2016. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

In my experience, 16th and Mission BART is the transit system's dirtiest station. And the Burger King Plaza entrance, which serves as the rambunctious outdoor living room for the neighborhood's homeless, SRO residents and many who appear to be in desperate need of some combination of medical care and psychiatric help, is the filthiest part of the station.

It's common to encounter a potpourri of garbage, discarded clothing, fallen palm fronds and pigeon poop while entering and leaving the station through the BK Plaza.

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In fact, after watching the refuse pile up for a few weeks after the plaza escalator broke, I took a picture and sent it to a member of the BART board.

"As a frequent patron of 16th Street BART, I recognize there are huge challenges to maintain a clean and orderly environment at the station," I wrote. "But the conditions there often seem to bespeak outright neglect. ... I guess the underlying questions after saying all that are: What does BART have to do to improve conditions at the station? And what will it take to prompt BART to take that action?"

I didn't hear back from the board member. But when I was exiting the station about three hours after sending the note, a cleanup crew was on the scene. So maybe the board member actually read the message.

But that email clearly didn't have any impact on the escalator, which has remained frozen in place week after week. What's been ailing it?

The constant accumulation of refuse probably doesn't help. And the conditions certainly don't make life any easier for the technicians brought in to work on the equipment. Earlier this week, San Francisco's KPIX aired a report on BART worker overtime. KPIX says it asked BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost why the agency didn't hire more escalator technicians, for instance, instead of paying huge amounts of overtime.

"We are actually having a hard time recruiting," Trost is quoted as saying. "The conditions aren’t very glamorous, working 24 hours a day on our stinky old escalators. We don’t have a lot of people chomping at the bits for that.”

The age of the escalators is an issue, too. The systems at 16th and Mission and three other stations (24th/Mission, Montgomery and Embarcadero) were manufactured by a German outfit named Orenstein and Koppel. Shortly after selling the escalators to BART, the firm went belly up. So now BART is stuck trying to find parts for escalators that are nearly 20 years old and whose manufacturer is no longer in business.

But it's possible to muddle through, and that's what BART is doing. Last month, it awarded a $2.9 million contract for limited part replacement and renovation of the escalators at the four stations served by O&K systems.

Trost provided a detailed account of the troubles afflicting the Burger King Plaza escalator, starting last December (see box above). The real show-stopper was something called a "bull gear pillar block failure." The bull gear is the main gear moving the stairs; the pillar block connects the bull gear to the truss, or escalator framework. (Here's an interactive schematic that purports to show how all this stuff works in the ideal, non-16th Street world.)

After diagnosing the problem, BART had to wait for months while parts were fabricated. Earlier this week, everything was installed and the escalator was running again.

So for now, you can ride the stairs at Burger King Plaza. The escalator across the way, at the southwest plaza, is awaiting installation of a new handrail. That work is supposed to be done the first week of June.

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If you expect more permanent fixes -- well, sooner or later, those old escalators will have to be replaced entirely. And chances are you'll have to wait a good long while for that to happen. And by way of observation and not endorsement: The $3.5 billion bond measure BART is expected to place on the November ballot is expected to include $210 million for "station renewal," a category that includes escalator upgrades.

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