CA: Clean Team, Loitering Crackdown Help Make BART Stations Spiffier

Sept. 02--BART's four downtown San Francisco stations -- Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell and Civic Center -- take a beating, not only from the 140,000 passengers who pour through them every weekday, but from the scores of homeless people who use them as bedrooms, restrooms and places to hang out.

The stations are not only the busiest but, arguably, the filthiest of the 44 in the BART system. Commuters are forced to run a gauntlet of grime: piles of feces and puddles of urine near the entrances, litter and discarded food on the floors, a coating of dust and dripping ooze on the walls.

"This is the most poorly cleaned station in the Bay Area," said Stephanie Lopez, 24, a pharmacy technician, standing in Civic Center Station. She rides BART from Pittsburg/Bay Point four days a week. "In the morning, I walk into the stairways and there's human feces there. Sometimes it's still there when I come back in the evening. It seems to take hours to clean it."

BART officials acknowledge the problem and say Lopez is right. Crews spend so much time on the stairways and escalators in and out of the stations that it leaves little time for routine cleaning.

Funding for cleaning crew

Now, a little relief -- emphasis on "little" -- has arrived. BART's budget for the year that started in July includes funding for a special team that will focus on station entrances in downtown San Francisco and Oakland as well as other heavily used stops, including Downtown Berkeley and Coliseum. The three-person crew started work last week at Powell, where they were steam-cleaning stairways and walls Thursday.

"This is all they do," said Alicia Trost, a BART spokeswoman. "Stairways and entrances."

While their work has already made a noticeable improvement, BART's maintenance of its downtown stations still lags. BART shares its downtown stations with Muni Metro but is responsible for maintaining all areas of the stations except those inside Muni's fare gates.

Systemwide, BART has 107 full-time and 13 part-time workers to clean its stations. Sixteen of those are assigned to the four downtown San Francisco stations -- just half of the number that cleaned them before the recession forced BART budget cuts, which hit cleaning crews particularly hard.

Those 16 workers are spread over three shifts: daytime, swing and graveyard, and each station gets one cleaner per shift, except for Powell, which gets two. The graveyard shift is BART's "scrub crew," a three-person team that spends four to six weeks doing deep cleaning before moving on to the next downtown station in rotation.

"They just don't have enough people," Trost said, adding that she doesn't know if BART has studied how many people it would take to keep the stations cleaner and what it would cost.

But there's no denying the problem needs attention. BART's own quarterly evaluations show interior station maintenance below its goals, beneath a "good" rating and falling. Customer satisfaction surveys, taken every other year, indicate a similarly slow but steady decline since 2004.

Change is in the air

But there are signs that downtown stations may soon be looking a little brighter, literally and figuratively. In addition to adding the "brightening crew" to work on the entrances, BART recently started enforcing a ban on people sleeping or reclining in downtown stations -- and that appears to be boosting cleanliness.

On several visits to the downtown stations last week, each of them looked noticeably cleaner than usual with less litter, few signs that entrances were being used as restrooms and only one of eight elevators smelling of urine. Most of them, in fact, smelled as if they had been cleaned recently.

"The last couple of days, it seems like the (homeless) clientele isn't there anymore, and it doesn't smell of urine," said Dan Park, who was waiting for a train at Civic Center. "It hasn't always been that way."

BART officials have described the enforcement effort as a safety measure to keep loiterers, homeless or not, from blocking emergency access into or out of the transit stations. Advocates for the homeless, initially silent, have since criticized it as a heartless campaign to evict people unable to get into shelters.

But the program has been popular with riders, officials say, and they credit the reduction in the number of homeless people inside stations with making it easier to clean them.

"It is a complex problem with no easy solution," Trost said. "The new enforcement from BART police is helping inside the stations."

The cleaning crews agree that it has made a difference.

"It's a lot easier now that the homeless aren't here," one maintenance worker, who did not want to give his name, said as he used a rag to wipe down railings and walls at Powell Street Station.

The dirty and dingy condition of the downtown stations cannot be blamed entirely on the homeless, though. BART is a subway, after all, and trains kick up dust and dirt and blow debris as they speed in and out of stations. Ridership on the transit system has boomed over the past five years to about 414,000 riders per weekday, and many of those passengers drop litter, discard half-eaten food and spill drinks.

Absence of trash cans

Adding to the problem is the absence of trash cans on station platforms. They were taken away as a safety measure after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Without them, many of the passengers who treat BART as a diner by ignoring the ban on eating or drinking past the fare gates simply dump their debris on platforms or trains. Trost said the transit agency is looking at a way to provide trash receptacles that don't present security dangers.

It's tough to tell how BART stacks up against other American transit systems. But Washington's Metrorail subway, a system two years younger than BART and built with the same technology, is often regarded as a far cleaner system.

Caroline Laurin, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, credits a well-enforced ban on eating and drinking, along with a ban on food sales within stations, with creating a culture of cleanliness on the Metro system. Employees even monitor Twitter for reports of messes and dispatch cleanup crews. Riders, she said, tend to police themselves.

"Most people are reticent to even take a sip of coffee because they know other patrons might react to that," she said.

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the subway known as the T, runs a program called "Cleaning Between the Lines" that encourages customers to submit online comments about the cleanliness of stations and trains.

Canopies to be tested

Back in the Bay Area, BART officials are preparing to test a canopy that will cover subway station entrances and allow them to be closed off at night, preventing their use as a place to sleep or go to the bathroom. Construction of the first canopy, at the 19th Street Station in downtown Oakland, will begin this month.

"We're really hoping the canopies help, that people see that they can go up quickly, are attractive and can be effective," Trost said. "And that San Francisco will follow suit."

While BART struggles to clean up its downtown stations, it's also worth noting another apparent advance. The transit agency's elevators, which usually reeked of urine more than a Candlestick Park restroom, are now being cleansed with a new disinfectant. Trost said it contains a special enzyme that smells like vanilla.

"We're hearing very positive remarks from our passengers," she said.

But it's too early to call it the sweet smell of success.

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan

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