It only took five days for San Francisco’s iconic cable cars to get derailed.
Following an 18-month pandemic hiatus, all of the lines starting running at full service but were quickly shut down again after an electrical problem on Sept. 9 triggered a system-wide power outage. Nine days later, the hallmark trundle of these vintage vehicles returned, but the road ahead is long.
According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the nearly 150-year-old system is overdue for major renovations to the tune of $625 million. Such dire economic forecasts — unfortunately not uncommon with Muni — raise bigger questions about how to imagine a sustainable future for the cable car system.
Cable cars are central to the fabric of San Francisco. So much so that their operation is mandated in the City Charter. They’re also wildly expensive to operate, running a $46 million operating deficit in 2019, according to the news site Mission Local.
SFMTA spent roughly $28,000 on this latest shutdown between parts and vendor services, said spokesperson Stephen Chun. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars the agency estimates will be required to bring the cable car system up to date and prevent similar mechanical errors from occurring in the future.
This project, which SFMTA started planning over a year ago, would renovate the cable car barn, modernize the existing electrical system — the same one that triggered this month’s power outage — and upgrade structural, seismic and propulsion infrastructure. It would also rehab 41 cars.
With such a steep price tag and so much uncertainty around the aging system, why did SFMTA choose to bring back cable cars now rather than later?
One explanation: tourism. Or, perhaps more accurately, the threat of its disappearance.
Senior transit agency officials repeatedly said throughout the pandemic that bringing back cable cars would be a “heavy lift,” and might risk pulling already-limited resources away from more desperately-needed Muni services.
An infusion of federal funds totaling $1 billion coupled with overt political pressure turned the tides swiftly. Changing its tune sharply, SFMTA announced in March 2021 a return timeline for these beloved transit vehicles. The announcement did not include mention of plans to eventually overhaul the system.
“Cable car service was among our last to be restored because prioritizing mobility and connections for essential workers was paramount during the COVID pandemic,” Chun said. “However, the cable cars are a critical part of the San Francisco brand and key to our economic and tourism recovery.”
A tourist attraction in their own right, cable cars also transport droves of visitors looking to shop, dine or enjoy cultural events to areas such as Fisherman’s Wharf. Though tourism remains down by a staggering amount, it’s widely believed to be central to San Francisco’s economic recovery. Bringing visitors back to San Francisco will be easier with the promise of a ride on a cable car.
Overhauling the system would likely require another shutdown, this time for a magnitude of months, not days. That worries many who say tourism will only become more important after the pandemic if remote work continues to be a reality and fewer people return to or move to The City permanently.
Cable cars were suspended for 18 months in the early 1980s. Then-mayor Dianne Feinstein saved them from irrelevancy by rallying public support and federal funding to temporarily shut the system down to accommodate massive upgrades.
Speaking for the nonprofit organization Market Street Railway, Rick Laubscher questions why the system needs yet another massive upgrade just 40 years after one that was supposed to last far beyond that.
“We as the nonprofit historic organization believe that Muni should scrutinize this project very closely before they move forward,” he said. “They should see if there’s a better way to do it, a faster way to do it or even if it needs to be done at all.”
Healthy skepticism in SFMTA’s propensity to plan massive capital projects and then fail to execute them properly is not unfounded.
There was the August 2020 relaunch of the subway system, designed to speed up downtown travel times. It lasted three days before an overhead wire issue closed it for nine months.
There’s the construction on Van Ness Avenue and the Central Subway Project, both of which have taken far longer than projected. And the lofty, ambitious plans for Better Market Street, which took nearly a decade to craft, were significantly scaled back after their feasibility and cost was questioned.
SFMTA remains adamant the same would not be true for another system-wide upgrade for cable cars. The agency cautions that holding off on this work would cause more problems than it would avoid.
Chun said the agency is currently working with federal, state and local entities to secure funding, a necessity given the ongoing structural deficit and declines in parking and farebox revenues.
Part of that conversation will include plans for a ballot measure to go in front of voters next year.
SFMTA leaders have been tight-lipped about details for the tax measure, but they’ve said it would create a stable source of funding for the agency and help it to chip away at its ballooning structural deficit.
Until then, San Franciscans should probably get used to this on-again, off-again relationship with the cable cars they adore.
“We have been fortunate that we have had minimal major mechanical issues over the past several years,” Chun said. “However, we do expect the rate of temporary shutdowns to increase as the system ages.”