No break yet on $5 cable car fare 

Proposed fare changes for San Francisco’s cable cars — including offering transfers or allowing kids to ride free — have been put on hold, despite a vowfrom Mayor Gavin Newsom to do something about the high cost of the ride aboard the historic vehicles.

Last September, Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Nathaniel Ford told the agency’s board of directors that Muni was considering offering cable car riders the option of transferring to another cable car.

In September 2005, the MTA raised the fare from $3 to $5. No transfer is offered on the cable cars, but one-month pass holders can ride the cable cars. The fare for Muni’s other vehicles is $1.50 per ride, which includes a 90-minute transfer.

The boost has concerned the mayor, who last week, during a public policy talk, renewed a promise "to do something" about the cable car price.

MTA staff had begun researching the cost effectiveness of transfers, Ford said in September, because it was a more feasible option than reducing the price of the popular tourist attraction. According to Muni data, operating, maintenance and capital costs for the cable cars add up to an annual cost of nearly $40 million a year. Divided by the number of passengers in fiscal year 2006 — 7.4 million — it calculates to about $5.34 per passenger.

Since that time, MTA staff have proposed two other options to make the cable cars more attractive to riders: allowing children with a parent to ride for free and cutting by $1 the cost of the $11 one-day Muni pass.

No changes to the cable car fare structure are included in the operating budget approved by the MTA board on Tuesday, however. In addition, Sonali Bose, the agency’s financial officer, recommended that the board not make any decisions regarding cable cars now, but wait to "look at the entire revenue picture of the organization" during talks that will begin in April for the fiscal year 2008-09 budget.

MTA board member Michael Kasolas called the cable cars a "national treasure," and cautioned his colleagues not "to get caught up in cost recovery."

Andrew Sullivan, of the transit agency watchdog group Rescue Muni, said that while the higher price for cable cars is understandable, it’s not "customer-friendly" to withhold a transfer that would allow passengers to get on another cable car, a bus, streetcar or light rail.

"We want to send a message to tourists and commuters alike to ride mass transit," Sullivan said.

Riders find historic trolleys magnetic

San Francisco has the only remaining cable car line in the country, according to Jim Graebner, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley subcommittee.

"They require a two-person crew, that’s why historically most cities have gotten rid of their cable cars," Graebner said.

What cities haven’t given up is their love of the old-fashioned street car or trolley, he said.

He noted that in Little Rock, Ark., downtown development has included a two-and-a-half-year-old rail line with street cars that are designed to look historic, but are brand-new.

Today and tomorrow, Graebner and several dozen members of the subcommittee, from all over the country, will be in San Francisco for their biannual meeting. On their agenda is a tour of Muni’s historic F-line streetcars.

"There is something about streetcars and rail that captures the imagination of a lot of people; not just tourists, but also people who otherwise wouldn’t be on public transportation," Graebner said. "A lot of people will ride the F line down Market; there’s not quite the same magic going down Geary [on the bus]."

beslinger@examiner.com

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Bonnie Eslinger

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