Alice Barnes: Safety FirstBy Leah Barvels
Sitting in a coffee shop in San Bruno as sheets of rain pounded the window, Alice Barnes sipped her drink and chatted with about 10 city workers taking a break. She knew most of them because they are the ones who respond to her calls.
"When these guys get calls to fix something and they find out the call is from me, they fix it because they know it's legit," Barnes said.
Barnes has been a BART and public safety activist in San Bruno since 1995. But she's been an observer her whole life.
"When I was 7 I was crippled with a dissolved hip bone, so I know what it's like to be in a wheelchair," Barnes said. "It was very difficult to get on and off the curbs. And this was in Maine and there was snow everywhere. Years later in 1995 I got the city of San Bruno to cut 26 curbs."
Barnes first decided to make her voice heard and run for San Bruno City Council in 1995. It started when BART's expansion plans were set to destroy a neighborhood in her town, she said.
"I didn't stand up for everything, just injustice," Barnes said. "I'm really a BART advocate and think that getting people out of their cars so I can breathe is important."
But it was the way BART went about construction that had Barnes stand up, she said. Once construction started, she said the safety hazards she observed were careless and preventable.
"I think a lot of corners were cut and as a result there were problems. I'm surprised that there weren't more lawsuits then there were," Barnes said. "During construction fences weren't shut and kids could just walk right in and get hurt.
"It got so bad that we would go out and take pictures, send them to City Hall, City Hall would send them back to BART and they ended up just not getting fixed," Barnes said.
Barnes ended up getting the cellular phone number of the weekend supervisor and rather than going through the motions she would just call him and the job would get done, she said.
"Once I was asked by the supervisor to go out and close one of the gates to keep the kids out," Barnes said.
Barnes has been living in San Bruno since 1970. In between leaving Maine and coming to the Bay Area she worked in the New York Times newsroom before landing a reporting job in Florida in 1966. She won awards including one from the Associated Press and another from the Florida Highway Patrol for a series on safe driving tips.
Once in the Bay Area there were no reporting jobs, so Barnes worked as a federal government center officer where she was responsible for contracting new buildings on Marine Corps bases from Alaska to Arizona.
Eventually Barnes earned her degree in history from the University of San Francisco and in the mid-90s began her political crusade for justice.
Barnes ran for City Council in 1995 and 2001 and lost both times. She said she has no plans to ever run again due to her health.
"The best thing the people of San Bruno ever did for me was not elect me because today I'm still alive," Barnes said.
Barnes has suffered four heart attacks since 2000, the second one resulting in quadruple bypass surgery. As part of her recovery, Barnes walks a mile a day where she still observes safety hazards and reports them.
"Sometimes I'll walk my mile and other times I'll have to turn around after a block," Barnes said. "What I think about when I walk isn't what most people think about. I think of things like whether a car is parked with its engine on and whether I have to cross the street to breathe and I also think of where I am, what are the addresses around me because if I have to call the paramedics they'll know where to find me."
Barnes may not be running for office again, but she still tries to help the public stay safe. The railroad crossing on San Mateo Avenue in San Bruno has been the site of four deaths in 2000 and for the past five years, Barnes has been trying to make the intersection a safer place to walk.
"A mother and her son were killed there and I've been subpoenaed to show up in Redwood City with pictures from my Web site to show the condition of the site before and after the accident," Barnes said. "It's crazy, I was just out there taking pictures and in the next two weeks I'll have to show them in court because a kid died there."
Barnes said that there's no trick in being an activist and anyone can do it.
"I'm not a hero, just observant," Barnes said. "I think that people are born with talents and it's a matter of whether or not they use them."
Copyright ©2004 San Mateo Daily Journal. Published 02/07/2004.