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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Trolley Maven Defends Muni's $1.9M Restoration of City's Oldest Streetcar -- To a Point

Posted By on Tue, Apr 14, 2009 at 2:05 PM

Muni's flagship car will soon be going under the knife - RICK LAUBSCHER
  • Rick Laubscher
  • Muni's flagship car will soon be going under the knife

The news that Muni is shelling out just shy of $2 million to restore its historic trolley car No. 1 while struggling to make up a $129 million shortfall (and being systematically looted by other city departments) could be read as a case of fixing up the doilies and sconces -- while your cracked foundation sags and the neighbors brazenly steal from the pantry.

None too surprisingly, trolley aficionados and Muni don't see things that way. Rick Laubscher, the president of the Market Street Railway -- the good folks who brought you the F-Line -- handily backs up Muni's choice to spend the money. But he isn't entirely thrilled with every last detail, and wasn't shy to let us know.

Incidentally, today's Chronicle story on Muni Car No. 1 -- a 97-year-old workhorse that is actually the nation's first publicly owned streetcar -- astoundingly did not mention what every Muni rider literate in English, Spanish, or Chinese sees right when he steps onto the bus: The system is vastly in the red and vital services are on the chopping block. The juxtaposition of expensive repairs to one special vehicle and overall burgeoning deficits makes an obvious impact on readers, and is reflected in the story's reader comments (which probably found a way to pin this on sanctuary city policies to boot).

Muni, however, doesn't simply keep all its money in a jar and divvy it up on an impromptu basis. Without bringing up Muni's operating deficit, a journalist has no reason to mention that the restoration funds hail from a variety of capital campaigns, local sales tax dollars, and state and federal grants -- in other words, money that was always earmarked for fleet restoration and could never be applied to Muni's current shortfall.

The first run of Old No. 1 -- Dec. 28, 1912
  • The first run of Old No. 1 -- Dec. 28, 1912
Laubscher also points out that this is the first maintenance overhaul for Old No. 1 since 1962 -- and should last for decades. He adds that a new Muni Light Rail Vehicle costs around $5 million and smaller models used in Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland run $3 million -- so the $1.78 million (plus a little over $100,000 in contingencies) is a bargain, right?

On the other hand, Old No. 1 isn't exactly expected to fill the same role as a Muni LRV, just the way a restored 1964 Ford Mustang wouldn't be used interchangeably with a minivan. But when you prorate the money over the decades until No. 1's next trip to the shop and consider that the F-Line hauls 20,000-odd people a day -- well, then Laubscher has a point.

Of course, Laubscher feels he's had a point for three years and change. He's long been pushing for No. 1 to be fixed since it went out of service in 2006. Getting this done years ago almost certainly would have led to a lower overall cost ("everything's cheaper in the past," admits Muni spokesman Judson True) and would have avoided the PR quagmire of spending for restoration amid massive deficits.

Laubscher also notes that the city's onerous bonding requirements and sheafs of paperwork required for one-time contracts such as the renovation of Old No. 1 discouraged some of the nation's most prominent trolley restoration companies from even entering a bid. Rail museums -- who don't mandate the flow-chart worthy process of bidding on a contract that our city does -- have had similar trolley cars restored for less than two-thirds of the price Muni is shelling out.

True confirms that the contract to renovate Old No. 1 was a years-long, complicated process -- and that's how things are in the city. When it comes to signing over the rights to restore San Francisco's "museums in motion," just like on a slow ride from Fourth and King to Ocean Beach, you best bring a magazine.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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