While the SFMTA did receive $1 billion in federal stimulus money, spending more than half of it on just cable cars seems foolish, so expect the agency to put a tax measure on the 2022 ballot.
Fun fact: San Francisco’s world-famous cable cars' continuing operation is actually mandatory and written into the city charter. You can read it right here, it’s Section 8A.114, and it requires that what we now call the California, Powell/Hyde, and Powell/Mason cable car routes “shall be maintained and operated.” Sure the city charter has changed countless times since it was established in 1898. (It’s current language says these routes “shall be maintained and operated at the normal levels of scheduling and service in effect on July 1, 1971.”) And we even tried to get rid of cable cars that one time back in 1947. But the fact remains that these old-time public transit jalopies are as crucial to our city’s identity as the Golden Gate Bridge, or the very hills the cable cars cover.
📸 Cable car of the San Francisco Municipal Railway on the California Street Line near Stockton Street in May 1959. #kodak #colorslides #kodachrome #35mm © Photograph by Fred M. Springer pic.twitter.com/E9t5CDQ2ir— Kodachrome forever 📸 (@Kodakforever) September 27, 2021
But the recent woes of the cable cars have ranged from an 18-month COVID-19 shutdown, to a free “mock service” August dry run with wildly inconsistent operation, to an official September return that lasted all of nine days before an electrical issue at the cable car barn shut the system back down. The cars are running again, but the faulty infrastructure issues remain. And the Examiner reports in a terrifically informative article that the SFMTA says they will need $625 million to fix these underlying issues.
Costly cable cars: City seeks $625 million to avoid more ‘temporary shutdowns’ https://t.co/jcum3s1bCe— SF Examiner (@sfexaminer) September 30, 2021
Mind you, the cable cars constitute but three Muni routes.
The recent fix was relatively cheap, at $28,000 according to an SFMTA spokesperson. But they say the same electrical issues will just keep happening again without the upgrade. The Examiner reports that this shockingly high-priced system upgrade 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.”
SFMTA figures they can shake the state and federal funding trees to come up with some of this money. But the system tends to run a deficit every year, and those tourists spending $8 per ride will not be returning in droves anytime soon. So the agency says they’re likely to put a tax measure on the ballot next year, but they are not disclosing how large a tax it would be, nor from whose pockets this would be coming.
And this is the SFMTA, an agency not particularly celebrated for their efficiency.
“Muni should scrutinize this project very closely before they move forward,” Rick Laubscher of the nonprofit Market Street Railway told the Examiner. “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.”
SFMTA may not be drowning in public corruption indictments like Public Works or the Department of Building Inspection, but the level of public trust in that agency is justifiably quite low. The Van Ness overhaul and Central Subway Project have both been way past-due and over budget nightmares, they blew tens of millions on mistakes in the Twin Peaks tunnel, and the return of the Muni Metro trains also saw an immediate meltdown. The SFMTA is simply not an agency one hands more than half a billion dollars to with a great degree of confidence, because if they’re saying fixing the cable car system will cost $625 million, who knows what price they’ll be ringing up a few months later.