A battle is underway to get them operating at pre-pandemic normal
Battle lines have been drawn over how many of San Francisco’s historic cable cars – a world-renowned tourist attraction and one of the city’s prides – are expected to operate.
The Muni Drivers Union is at odds with the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency over the full restoration of California, Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable car service.
“People come from all over the world to drive our vehicles,” said Roger Marenco, president of a local Transport Workers Union. “Why reduce and spoil cable car lines that have been historically protected for over 40 years?”
At the heart of the case is a voter-approved piece of the city charter — essentially San Francisco’s constitution — that obligates the city to keep cable cars running. Along with that is the financial strain facing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency once federal pandemic funding ends.
“The city charter says the cable cars must operate at a specific level in perpetuity, but they stopped operating due to Covid,” said union vice president Pete Wilson. “On October 16, 2021, they were supposed to restart. The mayor’s office supported us on this, but now they are silent, and the SFMTA is running other races in direct violation of the city charter.
However, the agency sees things differently.
“Operators like the pre-Covid schedule because there were a lot of high-paying teams,” SFMTA spokesman Stephen Chun said. “But it was unreliable and led to long queues and poor customer experience. Since Covid, we have worked hard to increase supervision, improve reliability and focus service where it is needed most.
Chun added that the MTA doesn’t have enough operators now — and they didn’t have any before the pandemic — to meet the charter requirement. Moreover, he says, the demand is not enough.
Union officials counter that in fact there are long lines of tourists queuing until 10.30pm when the last car of the night returns to the barn.
The mayor’s office said the cable car’s level of service is currently adequate and meets the needs of downtown businesses and tourist agencies.
The SFMTA can change schedules for streetcars, light rail vehicles, and buses, but is not supposed to change them for cable cars since the schedules were written into the 1971 City Charter by voters.
The union says the different schedule has dramatically changed working conditions, forcing operators to work split shifts: four and a half hours on the clock, then a two-hour unpaid break, then five hours on the job. They said they filed a complaint with the Employment Public Relations Commission about it.
Impact of the pandemic
The city halted its nearly 150-year-old cable car service in March 2020 in response to Covid. Four months later, the mayor’s office suspended the city’s legal obligation to maintain cable car service until 120 days after the state’s “stay safe at home” order ends.
Cable cars haven’t climbed the city’s famous hills for 16 months, the longest absence since the system was overhauled in the 1980s over an 18-month period.
California lifted the “stay safe at home” order on June 15, 2021, and normal cable car programming and service was scheduled to return in October 2021.
But that was not the case. Cable car service resumed from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., a reduced schedule that reduced its hours of operation in the morning and evening. Operations are supposed to start at 5:30 a.m. and last until 1 a.m., according to the union.
A committee of stakeholders ranging from Supervisor Aaron Peskin and the Transport Workers Union to the San Francisco Travel Association and Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District provided advice on how best to restore service in light of changes in ridership patterns. caused by the pandemic.
Just days after the cable cars finally started operating again, MTA officials released an estimate that the system would need a $625 million overhaul.
The fine print
In November 1971, voters in San Francisco approved Proposition Q, freezing cable car routes and the level of schedule and service then in effect. But what constitutes this level of planning and service is unclear.
Rick Laubscher, director of the Market Street Railway, a nonprofit that promotes Muni’s vintage vehicles, said his group supports meeting charter requirements. He is also trying to get his hands on a copy of the cable car timetable from July 1, 1971 to see what the level of timetable and service should be by law.
“It’s a matter that needs to be decided, and I don’t know what the process is for that,” Laubscher said.
A 2007 report by the non-profit organization San Francisco Beautiful detailing ways to improve cable car service states that the service in 1971 ran in less than six minutes, meaning the time interval between vehicles on a given route would be six minutes.
“It’s an eight-minute lead now, so that’s different,” Laubscher said.
The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines currently operate from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily, and the California line operates from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Laubscher said his organization is working with the SFMTA to comply with the charter while making service improvements, like making the California line appealing to locals, to generate more revenue.
Darcy Brown runs San Francisco Beautiful, which was founded by Friedel Klussmann, the very organizer behind the 1971 ballot initiative to preserve cable cars.
“Cable cars are our #1 tourist attraction in San Francisco,” Brown said. “They should be a huge priority. They are tasked with bringing in a huge amount of money at a time when the city needs it most.
Tourism is the city’s largest industry. Before the pandemic, it supported more than 85,000 jobs and generated more than $750 million in tax revenue for the city.
“When the city is in such bad shape, we have to prioritize the things that work – and the cable cars are one of the things that work for us to attract tourists and get good public relations for the city,” said Brown.