Cable cars are coming back, and with them, San Francisco’s mojo, supporters say.
“Now you know we are not San Francisco without cable cars,” Mayor London Breed said on Tuesday during a press conference at Pier 39, one of the neighborhoods directly served by the vintage transit vehicles in pre-pandemic times, before teasing their planned return later this year.
Details were revealed at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors later that afternoon, outlining plans to bring the F-Line historic streetcars back in May and cable cars this fall.
“I am very excited to announce that as the mayor revealed earlier today we do have a plan and a schedule for resuming F-line service as well as cable car services,” SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said.
The announcement marks a sharp turnaround for the SFMTA.
At the Feb. 16 board meeting, SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum said it would be a “heavy lift” to bring the cable cars back given their steep operating costs, declining revenues and requirement of highly technical operators.
Similarly, Tumlin repeatedly emphasized that deciding to bring back the historic transit vehicles would require notable trade-offs, and could possibly come at the expense of restoring additional Muni routes or other agency priorities, such as safe streets infrastructure or support for popular programs like Slow Streets and Shared Spaces.
Nobody from The City has yet detailed how they plan to pay for the service, given that that SFMTA’s expenses outpaced its revenues even before the pandemic. Recent projections put the gap as high as $36 billion over the next 30 years without new revenue streams. As Mission Local recently reported, the cable car program ran a $46 million operating deficit in 2019.
That’s a steep bill that could be considered hard to justify in a budget austerity environment that has forced a litany of cuts, including the planned expansion of Free Muni for Youth and employee wellness program BackFirst, as well as the consideration of massive staff layoffs as part of efforts to pinch pennies.
Still, public pressure to restore the popular cable cars, which were suspended along with the street cars last March, has been intense.
For many, these historic streetcars and cable cars represent the spirit of San Francisco, and advocates for their restoration have said it would be a great symbol of The City’s comeback from the pandemic. In addition, both the streetcars and cable cars are a boon for San Francisco’s hospitality industry, which has taken a massive hit as a result of the pandemic as travel and tourism have all but ground to a halt.
“We thank Mayor Breed and SFMTA leadership for finding a way to return these symbols of our city to the street during these challenging budget times. They’ll send a sign to the Bay Area, California and the world that San Francisco is back in business,” said Rick Laubscher, president of local nonprofit Market Street Railway.
The F-line historic streetcar will return in mid-May, running from the Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf seven days a week on an eight-hour daily schedule, according to Tumlin.
Cable cars won’t be back until later this year, because they will require retraining operators and recertification by the California Public Utilities Commission.
However, Tumlin assured the public the Powell/Hyde line would restart this fall “well in advance of the holiday shopping season,” running seven days a week for eight hours each day.
Thanks to forthcoming federal aid, the SFMTA’s financial forecast is less dire in the short-term, but the ballooning structural deficit remains of severe concern.
SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato told the Examiner that the entire financial picture would be more clear in March once federal relief funding has been fully determined, but she declined to provide additional information around how the agency will pay for restoring cable cars and what sacrifices it will have to make to do so.
While the F-line will return in May, its route will be truncated just a few months later to make room for Better Market Street construction between Fifth and Eighth streets. It’s likely the route will only run from the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf while construction takes place, Tumlin said.
Already, it seems that plan could be a source of public pushback.
The nonprofit group Market Street Railway, for example, is urging The City to minimize the time for this partial closure.
“Businesses and residents along Market Street should not have the F-line streetcars taken away again for two whole years, especially the Castro District. We don’t want to see another Van Ness mess,” Laubscher said, referring to prolonged construction on the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project.