A Trip Through UCSD’s Hidden Tunnels: Purposes and Punishments

But for one Revelle College senior, living on campus presents another option for Friday night shenanigans.

“I’ve been [to the underground tunnels] probably at least three or four times,” Darryl Howard said.

UCSD’s underground tunnel system certainly has a reputation for being risky. In an article published on Feb. 15, 2011, the Voice of San Diego debunked the myth that the tunnels serve as a transportation system for the National Guard in case of large student protests. The news organization’s article “Fact Check: UCSD’s (Not So) Mythic Tunnels” concludes that there is no good evidence demonstrating that the tunnels are designed to be used in this way.

Richard Cota, Assistant Director of Building Operations at UCSD, stated that in his 20 years working at UCSD, the tunnels have never served any purpose aside from what they were built to do.

“They carry utilities throughout the majority of the campus,” Cota said. “They have some telecom cabling in there, high temperature hot water, the chill water that’s created at the central plant. There is some electricity that goes through there, natural gas, compressed air.”

The tunnels were built when Revelle College was built, and was expanded as the campus grew to the east and the north until it was no longer cost-efficient to maintain a full tunnel system. Today the tunnel system originates in Revelle, runs toward Bonner Hall, passes under the main gym, and winds its way down by Geisel. It looks around the school of medicine and then back into the central plan.

But the rest of campus also gets its water and electricity from these large central pipes, albeit indirectly, via a system of smaller pipes. The expanded tunnel system saves energy by generating the campus’s utilities in one central source and then distributing them out. The tunnels were the reason for the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to give UCSD the Star CHP Award in 2010, awarding it for “demonstrating considerable fuel and emissions savings over comparable, state-of-the-art separate heat and power generation.”

“To have in general chilled water and hot water generated at one location and then distributed out to the other buildings, that is energy-saving in itself,” Cota said, adding that similar tunnel systems exist at the Stanford University and UCLA campuses. “It is one of the most efficient ways to do it, so some of the older universities do try and do it this way.”

Of course, their uncertified use as a dangerous adventure spot is what makes the tunnels infamous to most students. And according to safety regulations, they’re off-limits to anyone other than facilities workers and contractors working for the school.

“It’s considered a confined space,” Cota said. “That means that evacuation is not easy. If there was a problem down there, a broken wire, a broken pipe, there’s only one or two ways to get out, so you’d have to go those ways and have a plan in place.”

Howard agrees that it’s probably not the safest place to go.

“There are these massive steam pipes, they’re covered in asbestos and they’re leaking and it’s a really narrow tunnel system,” he said. “If a pipe burst, you would die pretty instantly.”

Cota says the tunnels are not much of a spectacle.

“It doesn’t happen all that much that we find somebody, but there’s evidence of folks getting in there, writing on the wall, like ‘I was here,’” Cota said.

Cota says that if he were to catch students in the tunnels, which he has yet to do, he would simply escort them out — unless they resisted, in which case he would notify the campus police.

It’s unclear what the current penalty for being caught is, but UCSD students and outsiders alike seem to think it’s worth the risk.

One group, the San Diego Urban Exploration Meetup group — an organization not affiliated with the school — has even planned organized trips to the tunnels despite the fact that entering the tunnels is illegal. The group’s website posts event plans, and even though multiple users comment that the trip would be illegal, the most recent trip, which was scheduled for Oct. 16, 2010, actually went as planned.

“Most of the group bailed, but a couple of us persisted,” a group member who wished to be identified as “Dave T.” said. “We ran into one of the facilities managers in the basement of one of the buildings, and I was able to sweet-talk him into letting us at least take a look in the door. In the end he gave us about an hour tour of some of the tunnels.”