Thanks to SF's Cable Cars, Bell Tolls for City's Public Transit

They're a global icon of the City by the Bay and one of San Francisco's premier tourist attractions. Operating at a loss, the city's cable cars are also draining resources from more essential forms of public transit, writes Joe Eskenazi.
Ronnie Macdonald / flickr

"Cable cars are often blithely referred to as the sole transit system on the National Register of Historic Places. Grand — but, conversely, this means it's the only Historic Place in which funding for upkeep, personnel, and, perhaps, the odd severed foot competes with the dollars keeping core transit operations running," notes Eskenazi. "Maintaining cable cars for city tourists while struggling to provide core transit service is a bit like polishing the heirloom china for the guests while sending the kids to school with no shoes."

"All told, the cable cars required $55.6 million in expenses, meaning Muni took a hit of nearly $31 million operating them in '11," he explains. "When it comes to Muni math, these are pretty decent numbers — cable cars' 'fare recovery' of 44.8 percent of operating expenses from passengers dwarfed the system's overall tally of just 30 percent in 2011."

"But you can justify running buses and light-rail vehicles at a loss because they're vital transportation. You can't make the same justifications for a boutique rail service where, for the vast majority of its 19,000-odd daily passengers, a ride serves as an end in and of itself."

Full Story: Running of the Bull: Cable Cars Are Trundling Money Away From the Transit You Actually Use

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