Noe Valley Voice March 1998

J-Line Residents Ready to Rumble Over Breda Cars

By Joe Franklin

It has been 15 months since Noe Valley residents living along the J-line were first awakened in the middle of the night by that earth-pounding, anti-human scream known as Muni's new and improved streetcar, the Breda.

Since then Muni engineers say they have reduced the screeching -- which is actually a "pure-tone, low-frequency noise" caused by the car's AC propulsion system vibrating against other parts of the car -- by nine decibels. But the rumbling of the Breda cars, which are five tons heavier than their predecessors, has persisted, causing cracks in the foundations of houses and a smattering of lawsuits.

Thus far, more than 40 claims, ranging from serious structural damage to public nuisance, have been filed. The city's policy is to review the claims, usually within about three months, and make a ruling to either pay the claim or deny it. If denied, which happens in about 80 percent of the cases, the claimant may then proceed and file a lawsuit.

Doug Applegate, a lawyer with the firm Seiler, Yee & Epstein, which represents the majority of the cases, explained that rather than being a blanket class-action lawsuit, this will be a consolidated lawsuit, meaning the individual suits will be tried together but ruled on separately.

"When something is a legal nuisance, it's the responsibility of the people causing the problem to solve it," said Applegate. "It's one thing perhaps for elected officials to debate on what to do behind closed doors, but they're going to have to explain these claims to a jury some day, so we hope they'll come up with a way to fix the problem."

Jason Allen-Rouman, who lives at the corner of Church and 25th streets, has foundation cracks in his home that weren't there a year ago when the house was inspected prior to his moving in. Today Allen-Rouman is suing Muni for damages, even though he knows that problems are likely to persist.

"There are experts who came in before these cars were introduced and made claims that houses built on sandy foundations will experience earth and structural movement directly related to the cars," Allen-Rouman said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you're sitting in your living room and a Breda car moves by and shakes the entire house, that's what's causing the damage."

Elaine Cartwright, senior project manager for Muni, says the city is addressing the problem but that research and development take time. According to Cartwright, Muni is looking at additional software modifications proposed by General Electric, the makers of the car's motors. G.E. has suggested "chopping" the pure-tone frequency that is causing the screeching.

"If they chop it up into a million different pieces, in theory it should make the noise inaudible," said Cartwright. "We want to do lab tests to get a fix on it and make sure it will work, but we're confident that it will."

Cartwright denied reports that Muni has recently purchased more of the Breda cars, although she doesn't rule out the possibility that Muni still intends to replace its entire fleet of orange-and-white Boeings with the Bredas.

"The public would be very upset to find out that the city intends to buy more Breda cars, and other publications have agitated that situation. That is not the case," said Cartwright. "There are 59 more cars needed, and it is true that we believe it would make the most economical and logistical sense to do that with the Breda cars.

"However, the contract for more vehicles has not been finalized in any sense of the word, and that is not a consequence of more lawsuits being filed," she continued. "We have not stopped looking for solutions, and we intend to find one."

But words such as these are cold comfort to John and Mary Bernie, who say the cars have caused damage to their home ranging from the usual cracks in the plaster and stucco, to the kitchen sink actually detaching from the wall. John Bernie says he has been attending Muni and DPT meetings since February of last year and has gotten nothing but the run-around.

"Every meeting I went to I ended up with more questions," said Bernie. "Last November Mayor Brown said, 'It's like the fog, we have to live with it,' and [Muni chief Emilio] Cruz said things were as good as they were going to get. That's when I decided to file a lawsuit."

Bernie passed out fliers along the L-Taraval line at the beginning of January advertising a meeting to rally against the Breda car disturbances. Fifty people showed up. Collectively they are hoping a little guided pressure on the city will encourage quicker results.

"It's like a 2.8 to 3.2 earthquake when one of these cars passes by, depending on where you're at in the house," said Bernie. "I'm a native San Franciscan, so I know what I'm talking about when I say that. I mean I swear, I'm thinking about getting a seatbelt for my Barcalounger."