There's something about the sight of a historic streetcar rumbling through San Francisco that puts a spring in your step. They're oozing with character, in stark contrast to the drab uniformity of modern transit. Their laconic pace recalls a time when not everything had to be done right now, at once, on the double; some of the cars' marquees even read "Nowhere In Particular." People seem happy on these vehicles.
But they don't have to pay to maintain them.
The historic trams, like Jaguar automobiles, are as breakdown-prone as they are beautiful. In April, for example, the trams broke down every 2,500 miles -- a good number for them (they conked out every 1,600 miles in March). Still, that April figure represents 50 percent more breakdowns than buses or trains and well over 100 percent more than cable cars. Last year, Muni personnel revealed to SF Weekly that, in order to maintain the trolleys, it actually resorted to ordering parts on eBay.
So, as Muni struggles with the burden of its core mission of moving some 710,000 users daily, the notion of expanding service on a tourist-heavy line via some of the fleet's most rickety vehicles seems like a challenge.
Muni is processing our request for the daily ridership of the E-Line, which has been running throughout the summer to accommodate the crowds everyone expected to show up for the America's Cup. Numbers relating to the cost of setting up a permanent line are also being sent our way.
Tom Radulovich, a transit activist and president of the BART board, says that a route running along the Embarcadero has merit: "There's need for a strong North-South transit connection. It's not just a tourist line. We need commute capacity on that line as well."
Muni, however, may be short-circuiting its own efforts. If this is a line worthy of investment as commuter rail, it's a questionable move to saddle it with antiquated, unreliable, gorgeous historic streetcars.
"Maybe it should be a high-capacity, low-floor rail line. The infrastructure exists. Modern cars can carry two-to-three times as many people," Radulovich continues. "If you wanted to take the old-fashioned car, you'd wait for the F-Line. If you didn't care, you'd take whatever comes first."
Good luck to Muni on this endeavor. If it really is better to look good than feel good, this transit line will do just fine.