“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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Welcome back, F-line!

San Francisco’s famed (and much missed) F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar line is carrying happy passengers again. Regular service began on Saturday, May 15, with Boston PCC 1059 the first car to reach Fisherman’s Wharf, followed by Detroit 1079, as documented below by Matt Lee. As a bonus, the four-block loop through the Wharf from Pier 39 to the fishing fleet’s harbor at Jones Street, was back in service after having been shut down in Fall 2019 for construction on Jefferson Street, as shown in the photo above, by Jeremy Whiteman, featuring Philadelphia PCC 1055.

All the cars on the line have been fitted with new protective plexiglas barriers for the operators. Eighteen PCCs have been fitted out so far, sufficient to handle the 12-car schedule for the eight-hour-a-day initial service. Because of continuing federal regulations, all passengers had to wear masks, as on all transit lines in the country. Capacity was constrained by social distancing requirements. Within those constraints, the cars enjoyed healthy crowds, which can be expected to grow as more people become aware that the sleek streetcars are back on track.

All along the six-mile route, the PCCs brought smiles to passersby. The cars all carried American flags, plus special flags commemorating the F-line’s return, installed early that morning in dreary drizzle at Cameron Beach Yard by our dedicated volunteer flag master Joe Hickey, MSR board Vice Chair James Giraudo (who donated the flags) and MSR President Rick Laubscher.

Our San Francisco Railway Museum reopened along with the streetcar service and did a bustling business its first day. James Giraudo snapped this pic of museum manager taking down the “closed” sign after 13 months. The free museum’s interim hours are Noon to 5 pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We expect to expand those days and hours as visitors and office workers return to the city.

The first day of operation followed a midday celebration on Friday outside our museum, led by Mayor London Breed, who praised the restart of the F-line as proof that “San Francisco is back!” She then boarded her favorite streetcar, the 87-year old Blackpool, England “Boat Tram” 228, and tooted up The Embarcadero, briefly sharing operating duties with expert motorman Angel Carvajal.

After her turn at the controls, the Mayor waved to passersby, repeatedly announcing, “We’re back!” and “Time for fun again!”, delighting the invited guests on the boat, including SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin and MSR board Chair Carmen Clark.

Hoodline published a comprehensive look at the celebration, including great boat pix and videos. Here’s a link to the Examiner’s coverage, including a photo of the all-but-invisible protective operator barrier on the PCC. Finally, a link to Channel 2’s coverage, including video of the whole celebration.

The weather was not unfamiliar to the boat, which spent decades cruising along the foggy, chilly Irish Sea coast in its first home, and besides, nothing was going to dampen the celebratory spirits of having the F-line back. Perhaps the best comment of the celebration day came from speaker Joseph Ahearne, owner of El Porteno in the Ferry Building, a purveyor of wonderful empanadas. Mr. Ahearne described the financial struggles his family faced because of the pandemic, and emphasized how important the return of the F-line is to small businesses it serves, and how special it is to San Franciscans and the city. “The cable cars belong to the world, but the F-line streetcars are ours, and we love them.”

To help welcome back the F-line, we have designed and printed these advertising cards now posted in all the PCCs and available for purchase at our museum.

And while they last, we’re giving out free commemorative stickers, with five individual streetcar images, designed by our board member Chris Arvin, and our 2021 calendars (one sheet per visitor please) at the museum, May 20-22.

Thanks for everyone for all the hard work in making the return of the F-line a big success. Special thanks to the Muni streetcar maintenance team, shop workers, led by Doug Lee, Louis Guzzo, and Jesse Guthrie, with Joseph Flores, Dick Lui, Paul Rullhausen, and Kevin Sheridan on the front lines with their groups getting those required protective barriers designed, fabricated, and installed in record time, in-house! 

Also very special thanks to the “PCC Committee”, an ad hoc group of F-line operators who love the streetcars and advocated at the grass roots level for their return, along with providing invaluable advice on the design of the barriers. The group is led by Transport Workers Union Local 250A President Roger Marenco, who also effectively led outreach to elected officials and SFMTA leadership to build support for the streetcars’ return. The PCC Committee includes operators Aleena Galloway (who spoke for the group at the Mayor’s celebration), John Caberto, Garry Coward, Mike Delia, David Gunter, Forrest Hareford, Eric Lawson, Ryan Lee, Roderick Mills, Juel Rice, and Jacqueline Robinson.

Come take a ride on the F soon to show your support and enjoy the reopening of San Francisco! Great restaurants and shops await you all along the line. And until you can ride in person, you can again follow exactly where the F-line streetcars are when they’re in service with our great live map, created by our board member Kat Siegal.

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F-line to return in May, Hyde cable later this year!

Mayor London Breed told a group from Fisherman’s Wharf this morning that F-line vintage streetcar service will return to the full length of the route, from Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf, in May.

Cable car service on the Powell-Hyde line (only, for now) will resume as early as mid-summer, but many details remain to be worked out and that date could change. There is no word at this point when service on the Powell-Mason or California lines might resume.

It is our understanding that initial F-line streetcar service will be provided for eight hours a day by the streamlined PCC cars only, with operator protective shields to be installed around the operator’s position, as is done on the buses. For further operator safety, the same operator will keep the car all day, taking it out of the barn and bringing it back at the end of the shift, as is currently being done with buses and light rail vehicles.

This will limit F-line operation initially to eight hours a day, with exact hours to be determined in consultation with merchant groups along the line. (Pre-pandemic, the F-line operated 18 hours a day, with most F-line cars staying out the whole time, with one operator relieving another in the middle of the day.) The time between cars (service frequency) will be less than the approximately 6-8 minutes pre-pandemic and will depend to some extent on demand

It appears resumption of full-line F-line service will be brief, however. Work to replace the tracks between Fifth and Eighth Streets as part of the Better Market Street Project is slated to begin this fall and could last up to two years. Market Street Railway is working hard to convince the Department of Public Works, which is in charge of the project, to stage the work in a way which gets the tracks done in the shortest amount of time possible so that streetcar service can resume. During whatever period the tracks from Fifth to Eighth have to be out of service for replacement, we are working with SFMTA in hopes of operating double-end streetcars from the Wharf to the crossover at Fifth Street, with single-ended cars providing additional service along the waterfront between the Ferry Building and the Wharf area.

Market Street Railway has worked very hard for months now, side by side with Muni’s operator’s union (Local 250A) and numerous business and neighborhood groups to get the iconic cable cars and F-line streetcars back on the street. We thank Mayor Breed and SFMTA leadership for finding a way to return these symbols of our city to the street during these challenging budget times. They’ll send a sign to the Bay Area, California, and the world that San Francisco is back in business.

We will have a complete report on this for our members in the new edition of Inside Track, our quarterly member magazine, due out next week. Click here to become a member and get it. We’ll send you the last two issues as a bonus.

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The 15-Third is back

Though not this exact bus. In a time when many of its well-established lines, including the F-Market historic streetcars (which carried more than 20,000 riders a day) are still suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Muni is adding an entirely new route. No, wait. What they’re doing is reviving the well-known bus line known as the 15-Third, and setting it up kind of like a T-Express, to provide faster service downtown from the Hunters Point neighborhood and points along Third… — Read More

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Cable car on display at Powell & Market

There’s a familiar sound at the Powell and Market cable car turntable, at least some of the time. Thanks to the initiative of the Union Square Business Improvement District and the support of SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin, a Powell cable car will be on the ‘table every Tuesday , Thursday, and Saturday for at least several weeks, probably through the holiday season. Covid-19 restrictions have put the cables out of service indefinitely, but at least this is a way to… — Read More

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When will the cable cars and streetcars return?

The short answer is: we don’t know; it’s up to the virus and what we all do together to shorten its grip on our society. But Muni can be ready for that day, and we’re encouraging them to do so. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the other day that cable car operations would likely not resume “until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available”, which health experts think could likely take a least a year, and possibly much longer, to create,… — Read More

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What’s New is Old

All Muni rail service has been halted since March with selected replacement by buses. Metro lines are now slated to reopen in mid-August, though no date has yet been set for resumption of historic streetcar and cable car service. But Muni Metro will be different when it returns, at least at first. In a bold step, Jeff Tumlin, boss of Muni’s parent SFMTA, and Muni head Julie Kirschbaum are re-imagining Muni Metro for the first time since it opened in… — Read More

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Muni Heritage Weekend postponed

The very popular annual Muni Heritage Weekend is being postponed at least into spring of 2021. No exact date has yet been sent for the rescheduled event. The postponement has seemed inevitable for weeks, given the course of Covid-19 through San Francisco, and the enduring shelter-in-place orders. SFMTA and Market Street Railway, which co-sponsor the event, agreed this week that it was not feasible to hold it on August 22-23, its scheduled 2020 dates. As a result, we’ve jointly set… — Read More

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Status update, April 15, 2020

Muni has put into effect the dramatic service cuts we told you about in our last update. Muni is currently operating just 17 core routes (out of 87), all served by buses. No rail service of any kind currently. Given our focus, we won’t discuss details of that here, but if you read the public comments at the bottom of SFMA’s announcement, you’ll see a lively debate. The cable car machinery is completely shut down, though some cosmetic and restoration… — Read More

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Status update April 6, 2020

Muni has announced its most drastic system cutback yet, going into effect the next couple of days. Here is their announcement. It includes a map of the routes that will continue to operate and details on why the service is being further reduced. This follows last month’s shutdown of, first, the cable cars and historic streetcars, on the grounds that operators had no separation from passengers akin to light rail vehicles and most buses. That was followed by the shutdown… — Read More

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Streetcar-cable car shutdown

Residents of six Bay Area counties have been ordered to stay in their homes, except to buy groceries or medicine or visit doctors, until at least April 7. They may take walks as long as they remain at least six feet away from people who are not members of their own household. This unprecedented action triggered ripple effects on public transit, including the shutdown of E- and F-line historic streetcars and all three cable car lines for the duration of… — Read More

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Car-free Market Speeds Up F-line

A new study, plus research by our board member Chris Arvin, shows that the first month of the ban on private automobiles on Market Street is making Muni operations, including the F-line, faster, according to this story in the San Francisco Examiner. For the F streetcar, in particular, the impacts are “really noticeable,” Arvin said. Most morning commute streetcar trip from Ninth and Market streets to First and Market streets took more than 15 minutes. Since the car ban, about… — Read More

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Boat Tram Marks Market Street’s New Era

Can a tram be entrancing? Sure seemed that way yesterday at the ceremony at the foot of Market Street celebrating the elimination of private automobiles on San Francisco’s main thoroughfare. After an opening serenade by eight-time cable car bell ringing champ Byron Cobb and a round of speeches that included Mayor London Breed, SFMTA Board Chair Malcolm Heinicke, SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin, and several mobility advocates (from Walk SF, the Bicycle Coalition and MSR’s Rick Laubscher), the celebrants… — Read More

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Boat Tram to Help Celebrate Car-free Market, Jan. 29

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, January 29, Market Street will wave good bye to private automobiles from 10th Street to the Ferry. The boat tram will help. To symbolize the continuation of rail transit on Market (which began in 1860!), Muni has chosen one of its wildly popular 1934 open-top streetcars from Blackpool, England (both of which came to San Francisco thanks to Market Street Railway). The boat will join a parade up Market from Embarcadero Plaza at Market and… — Read More

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