“Better Market Street” keeps shrinking; less disruption likely for F-line

More than ten years ago, the City proposed a modest project to repave downtown Market Street. Planners got involved; advocacy groups pushed to add more features; city departments weighed in with wish lists, all saying, “If you’re going to that that, you should also do THIS.” The project metastasized into a full rebuilding of everything on and under the street from curb to curb, from the foot of Market to Octavia Street, more than two miles.

Every inch of the project area has F-line tracks. And the time those tracks would be torn up kept getting longer, cutting off businesses along Market Street from the riders the popular streetcars bring to them. It was looking like just the first phase of work – three blocks of Market – could sideline the F-line streetcars for up to four years; the whole project could impede F-line service on Market 15 years or even longer, effectively killing the F-line on Market Street for a generation.

F-line PCC 1061, honoring Southern California’s Pacific Electric, at Powell and Market, July 10, 2021. Chance Vonb photo from our Facebook Group.

But now, after community pushback organized by Market Street Railway, the project has been reduced in scope for the second time, bringing it back closer to that initial repaving job (which is desperately needed now). A key to the change of heart on city leaders’ part was their recognition that now is not a good time to completely tear up our main street just as businesses affected by the project are struggling to recover from the pandemic.

On July 13, the project’s manager, Cristina Olea of the Department of Public Works (DPW), told the City’s Board of Supervisors (acting in their role as the governing body of the County Transportation Authority) that the already-reduced scope of the project’s first phase (between Fifth and Eighth Streets), with up to four years of no F-line west of Powell Street, was now off the table. She said the leaders of the three agencies involved, DPW, SFMTA (Muni), and the Public Utilities Commission, had listened to community concerns and asked for alternatives with less disruption to the F-line and to businesses along the route.

Two alternatives were put forward as information, with a decision still to come. Alternative one, called “Safety, Accessibility & Streetscape”, shown below, makes various improvements to the street surface but does not replace the F-line tracks, which Market Street Railway believes still have 20+ years of useful life remaining. F-line disruptions would be limited to short periods, usually weekends, for repaving intersections and running conduit for new traffic signals. The 500-foot stretch between McAllister and Seventh Street, where the much-needed F-line loop to provide extra service will be constructed) is shown on the drawings as Phase 2, but Olea stated that SFMTA engineers are now proceeding with detailed design for the loop, and it is possible that part or even all of it could be built at the tail end of Phase 1, which she estimated would now take two years instead of the previously estimated four years.

The second alternative, estimated to cost $60 million, would add transit and utility upgrades between Seventh and Eighth Streets, including underground utility replacement, F-line track replacement, and new, longer and wider Muni boarding islands, with Muni buses currently using the curb lane relocated to share the track lane with the F-line streetcars in that block. This option would in fact require a shutdown of F-line streetcar service west of Powell for two years. The chair of the Transportation Authority, Sup. Rafael Mandelman, expressed skepticism at Alternative 2, below, suggesting city agencies rethink the whole project scope beyond the basic improvements of Alternative 1 given the impacts of the pandemic.

In response, SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin said Alternative 2 would provide city agencies with a test bed to see how new curb lane treatments to improve bicycle safety and discourage (now illegal) private motor vehicle use might work. Tumlin said it would also give the city agencies a better idea of just how complex the replacement of water and sewer lines would be.

In public comments at the meeting, Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher expressed MSR’s preference for Alternative 1, involving the least disruption to the F-line. Regarding Alternative 2, he suggested that the block between Seventh and Eighth would not provide a true test of what it takes to replace the complex web of underground utilities beneath Market, because that block has a BART/Muni Metro station beneath the surface, meaning that all underground utilities in that block were replaced 50 years ago and are just half as old as those under the sections of Market Street where BART was tunneled rather than built from the surface down. Further, the location of the utilities above BART stations is well documented, unlike the parts of Market where BART construction didn’t affect existing utilities. If City leaders decide that a trial block of utility replacement is necessary, Laubscher suggested the block between Sixth and Seventh, with older underground utilities. The F-line loop switches and crossings on Market could be installed as part of the work on this block, eliminating the need for a separate shutdown to do that work later.

Hanging over the entire discussion: what many observers are calling “Van Mess” – a similar project to install bus rapid transit lanes and replace underground and above ground utilities along a two-mile stretch of Van Ness Avenue, which is about the same width as Market Street. The Van Ness project has gone way over schedule and budget. That project’s team has blamed the delay on finding unexpected utilities and other things underground, complicating utility replacement. The Van Ness project is still going on, and will end up taking twice as long as projected and costing tens of millions of dollars more. The ongoing delays caused several small businesses on Van Ness to go under, even before the pandemic.

One of the surprises found last month during construction of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project: the old crossing of Muni’s H-line streetcar on Van Ness with the California Street cable car, buried under pavement for more than 65 years. The segment at lower right has been preserved. Matt Lee photo.

But even though the utility problems under Van Ness were discovered at the beginning of that project, four years ago, the Market Street project team somehow waited until the last minute to translate those learnings into a greatly increased estimate of how long Market would take. And they still haven’t explained why it would take four years to do three blocks of Market when even with delays, they’re doing two miles of Van Ness – a project five times longer than those three blocks of Market – in not much more time than that.

We at Market Street Railway agree with those, including Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents mid-Market, that City agencies need to step back and consider a new vision for Market Street that recognizes the financial realities of the city and the impacts of travel and land use patterns altered by the effects of the pandemic. Even more important, we ask that city leaders study other cities with old utilities and surface streetcar tracks to identify faster and less disruptive ways to perform replacement projects. There are scores of cities in Europe alone that could provide good case studies, and Jeff Tumlin, as an experienced global transportation consultant with myriad connections in the industry, is the perfect leader to bring these lessons home to San Francisco.

The final decision on which alternative to pursue needs to be made in the next few weeks, according to project manager Cristina Olea, to keep some federal funding from expiring. The heads of SFMTA, DPW, and PUC will collectively make that decision, Olea told the Supervisors at the TA meeting, but SFCTA Chair Mandelman advised that they pay attention to community concerns about disruption. We at Market Street Railway believe that as our economy struggles to recover and attract visitor dollars back to San Francisco, it’s essential that the F-line keep running its whole route. We will keep you up to date on developments.

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Longer F-line hours start June 26, from 7 a.m.-10p.m.

F-line streetcars will operate almost twice as long every day, from 7 a.m. – 10 p.m., starting Saturday, June 26.

This represents a huge expansion of the eight-hour-a-day service schedule implemented when the F-line returned to service on May 15, following a 13-month pandemic-caused absence.

The vintage streetcars have been very popular since their return, with service that started around midday and ended before sunset. The expanded hours will allow many more San Franciscans and visitors to enjoy the service between the Castro District and Fisherman’s Wharf via Market Street and The Embarcadero as they work, shop, dine, and play in our newly-reopened city.

“We salute SFMTA leadership for moving quickly to meet the clear demand for longer F-line service hours,” said Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railway, an advocacy and support group for the historic streetcars and cable cars. “They listened to merchants along the line, from Castro to the Wharf, saw the popularity of the streetcars as soon as they returned, and took decisive action, in time to serve the increasing numbers of visitors coming to town and San Franciscans resuming their daily routines. Well done.”

Muni chief Julie Kirschbaum made the announcement to a Muni youth advisory group on June 21.

This good news follows Mayor London Breed’s announcement that cable car service will resume in August with free rides on the Powell-Hyde line for those same service hours, 7 a.m. – 10 p.m. The free service amounts to a “soft launch” of the cable cars following what will be a 16-month shutdown for them. Fares will be collected starting in September, and the other two lines, Powell-Mason and California Street, will resume service at a later date as operators and other resources become available.

These service expansions leave both the F-line and cable cars several hours short of their pre-pandemic daily operating hours. The hours and levels of cable car service were actually written into the City Charter by voters 50 years ago following persistent attempts to reduce service, but the emergency declaration under which city government is still operating allows this flexibility. F-line service hours and levels don’t have Charter protection and have always been set by rider demand, resource levels, and other operating considerations, the same as other Muni bus and light rail routes.

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Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

There would be no F-line today without the concerted effort of a group of advocates and enablers in the early 1980s. Many of them were openly gay. No better time to celebrate their achievements than Pride Month.

That list simply has to start with Maurice Klebolt, a force of nature. Klebolt, who came to San Francisco from Chicago, ran a one-man travel agency, served as a part-time Muni operator, and cultivated elected officials on a single issue: operating historic streetcars on Market Street after regular streetcar service on the J, K, L, M, and N lines went underground with the opening of the Muni Metro Subway in the early 1980s. Others talked about it and began to plan for it, but Klebolt believed in actually DOING something instead. And did he ever. This story from the San Francisco Chronicle captures his activism perfectly.

Maurice Klebolt (left) with the Hamburg streetcar he brought to San Francisco, flanked by then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer in about 1984. MSR Archive

Klebolt and then-downtown business executive Rick Laubscher, who mobilized that community through the Chamber of Commerce, teamed up in something of a “Mr. Outside, Mr. Inside” pairing to win acceptance of a proof of concept in the form of a summer “Historic Trolley Festival” in 1983, which was renewed for a total of five seasons and built public support for the permanent F-line in 1995 and its extension to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000.

Klebolt brought numerous international vintage streetcars to San Francisco for Muni’s fleet, and led the charge to grow the new, seven-member nonprofit known as Market Street Railway into a vibrant membership organization by personally shaking down – er, soliciting – everyone he know (and many he didn’t) for what were then $10 memberships. that remains in Muni’s fleet (and remains in need of restoration). Maury’s untimely death in 1988 at just 58 left a real void, but the success of the Trolley Festivals had put a permanent F-line squarely on City Hall’s agenda. Read our tribute to him here, with more hard-to-believe (but true) tales, including his personal version of Cold War-era glasnost.

“Streetcar Named Desire for Peace”, Moscow/Orel Car 106, brought to San Francisco by Maurice Klebolt, participated in a 1992 parade honoring San Francisco’s centennial of streetcars. MSR Archive

While Klebolt may have been the most visible openly gay man associated with the creation of the F-line, several others played very significant roles. The solid and enduring support of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was essential to the Trolley Festivals and permanent F-line, but the implementation of her wishes was carried out by her top transportation staff member, Alan Lubliner. Alan’s attention to detail and follow-through kept the project progressing, even when some inside Muni and other city agencies didn’t see the urgency of action. Alan went on to a very successful career in New York with the transportation consulting firm Parsons-Brinkerhoff (now WSP).

The city’s nonprofit partner in facilitating the first two Trolley Festivals was the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (Market Street Railway took on that role starting in the third year). Lee Knight led the internal Chamber team that made dozens of arrangements on a faster schedule than the City’s procedures would allow. Lee later joined Muni’s then-parent, the city’s Public Utilities Commission as planning manager, before his life was tragically cut short by AIDS.

Once in operation, the spirit of the Trolley Festival was definitively captured by the senior motorman operating the vintage streetcars, Jack Smith, the son of one of San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar operators. Jack literally learned the craft of piloting streetcars at his father’s knee. His encyclopedic knowledge of San Francisco transit history and his unquestioned expertise in streetcar operation was looked up to by the other operators and by management as well. After his retirement from Muni, he served on Market Street Railway’s board of directors with distinction for several years, and was a long-time volunteer on restoration activities of our organization, focused on original San Francisco streetcars. Here’s how we remembered him after his unexpected passing in 2004, at age 72.

Motorman extraordinaire Jack Smith (left), who could operate any streetcar (or cable car), including the complicated Russian Tram 106, at first sight, receives a mock “tribute” from Maurice Klebolt, who brought the tram from Russia, at 17th and Castro in 1987. MSR Archive

There were many other members of the LGBTQ community that played positive roles in the Trolley Festival, particularly residents and merchants the Castro’s District, whose embrace of the vintage streetcars were a significant boost to their success. The Festival streetcars had to go where tracks already were, making Castro Street the logical terminal. Several gay business groups came together to issue a guide to introduce streetcar riders to neighborhood businesses. A booster committee was formed, led by a gay man named Robert Hunter, who asked the Chamber if they could create their own poster. Of course, came the reply. We have recently been offered a mint-condition copy of this artifact and offer this rough photograph we’ve been sent here.

And speaking of posters, we celebrate John Wullbrandt, then a young San Francisco artist who had done whimsical posters of a PCC and a cable car when we approached him to create posters for the first two Trolley Festivals. John raised the money from two other gay men, Bob Campbell and Joe Caplett, and we gained wonderful promotional tools. John is now a renowned fine artist based near Santa Barbara. We offer John’s 1984 poster of famous San Franciscans riding the Boat Tram (shown below) in our online store and at our museum store. The Chamber of Commerce focused on patronizing LGBTQ businesses for the promotional services needed for the Trolley Festivals, including purchasing signage from a small business on Brady Street, Budget Signs, owned by a young gay man named Mark Leno, who went on to a very successful political career in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Beyond the openly LGBTQ people who helped enable the F-line to become reality, there were other prominent people involved who chose not to reveal their sexual orientation during their lifetimes, and we honor that choice. But their contributions are certainly remembered and appreciated. (Anytime one attempts recognizing people who contributed to a team effort, there is always the risk of missing someone. We apologize if so.)

The historic streetcars have always been wildly popular in the Castro District, from the first article we remember being written about them in a local gay publication (with the headline “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” from Judy Garland’s ‘Trolley Song’) to loud complaints from merchants and residents when F-line service was threatened with extended interruptions. On several occasions, vintage streetcars have taken pride of place in the annual Pride Parade, something we hope will happen again in the future.

During the Trolley Festival’s first year, 1983, both the Blackpool Boat Tram and Muni’s very first streetcar, Car 1, participated in the Pride Parade. MSR Archive

On a national and international level, many gay men took leadership roles in rescuing streetcars from the scrap heap starting after World War II, and in creating museums to operate them. They did this in an era when coming out was to risk severe professional and personal consequences, so they often did not reveal their preferences. But you can see their legacy in museums all over the world. Our nonprofit has likewise benefited by the work of openly gay folks who have served on our board, among them Maury, Jack, Steve Ferrario, and our longtime board member and secretary, Art Curtis, who worked his way up from PCC operator to Chief Inspector at Muni.

Today of course, Muni’s parent, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is headed by a gay man, Jeff Tumlin, a San Franciscan for 30 years and frequent F-line rider. Its board of directors currently includes out small business leader Manny Yekutiel and has had other prominent LGBTQ leaders in the recent past, including former State Senator and State Democratic Party Chair Art Torres, and long-time board Chair Tom Nolan, who was previously a San Mateo County Supervisor. Indeed, at all levels, from front line workers to leadership to governance, the LGBTQ community is extensively represented at SFMTA.

Happy Pride Month!

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Boat Tram, Dinky both ‘fan favorites’

Our dual vintage streetcar popularity contests have yielded two ‘winners’, though in fact every one of the 32 streetcars in the polls put together by our board member, Chris Arvin, drew love from fans of historic transit from around the world.

The same “brackets” of 32 streetcars were set up on our Twitter account and on our Facebook group. The winner of each first-round matchup advanced to the second round, until we had two finalists. In both polls, the finals were between the 1934 Blackpool, England “boat tram” and the 1896 San Francisco “dinky”, but voters in the two polls selected different winners.

In the Twitter poll, 64% of voters chose the Boat vs. 36% for the Dinky. In the Facebook poll, the Dinky garnered 68% of the vote to the Boat’s 32%. Overall, because more people voted on Twitter than on Facebook, the Boat came out on top by a margin of 57%-43%.

So we hail both of these venerable streetcars, the 87-year old Boat and the 115-year old Dinky. That’s more than 200 years of streetcar beauty combined.

Here are the finished brackets for both the Twitter and Facebook polls. You’ll see some differences in the outcome of the rounds leading up to the finals. For example, the “Mint Milano” (green paint scheme on the popular 1928 Italian trams) faced off against the Boat in the Twitter semi-finals, while the last PCC built in North America, Muni’s own Car 1040, earned that spot in the Facebook poll (and was just barely beaten in that round by the Boat). In both polls, the other semi-final matchup was the Dinky against the very first streetcar Muni owned, Car 1, built in 1912. Many fans commented it was just too hard for them to choose between these most historic symbols of our city. Click to enlarge the brackets.

Twitter bracket – Boat Tram wins in final round
Facebook bracket — Dinky wins in final round

Thanks to all who participated, and if you missed this first contest, stay tuned. We’ll have additional ones down ther road!

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Boat or Dinky: which will win?

So we’ve been running a fun little contest on our Twitter account and our Facebook group. It’s an idea from our board member Chris Arvin to let people pick their “fan favorite streetcar” – however each person wants to define “favorite”. It was set up as an NCAA-style bracket, where you start with 32 teams, er, streetcars, and pit them against each other in pairs, where the one receiving the most votes in each matchup moves on to the next… — Read More

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Sorrow and outrage

Transit workers are our nation’s frontline warriors for urban mobility. And their workplace can be dangerous, with maintenance workers handling heavy machinery and large moving vehicles and operators facing traffic and, increasingly, unhinged and sometimes violent passengers. But what happened in San Jose yesterday morning at the Valley Transportation Authority light rail yard is another dimension entirely. Words fail us at the horror, so we will let President Biden say it for us. There are at least eight families [now… — Read More

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Streetcars bring smiles to the streets

Smiles are breaking out along the city’s waterfront and along Market Street, as Muni’s vintage streetcars are out in force for the first time in more than a year. The F-line is running a full test schedule, including pull-outs and pull-ins along the J-Church line, in advance of the official reopening of the line for passenger service on May 15. Initial service will run seven days a week, but just eight hours a day (11 am-7 pm) initially, running the… — Read More

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Vote for your favorite streetcar!

People all around the world love San Francisco’s vintage streetcars…and now you can vote for your favorite no matter where you are. Our board member Chris Arvin has put together brackets on Facebook and Twitter to make it easy and fun. It’s part of our continuing celebration to welcome back F-line streetcar service from Fisherman’s Wharf to Castro, which resumes May 15. Fans know that Muni has streetcars from all over the world. Many are unique streetcars more than 90… — Read More

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Take a 1906 “Trip Down Market Street” with experts

April 18, 1906, a date forever seared into San Francisco history. The cataclysmic earthquake and fire divided eras and impressed unforgettable memories on all who experienced it. All who experienced that horror firsthand are gone now. But by unbelievable good fortune, a compelling vision of the old San Francisco survives in the form of a motion picture, and the knowledge it provides us of the way it was keeps growing. Sunday afternoon, April 18, 2021, 115 years to the day… — Read More

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