Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012

Final installment of our six part series on Muni’s birth and first century.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
NUMBER ONE – For all its trials and tribulations during the preceding decade, as the 1980s began, Muni still enjoyed the highest ridership related to city population of any transit agency in the US. The density of San Francisco and decades of San Franciscans’ transit riding habits kept Muni busy, even as other systems shed riders. Poster from SFMTA Archive.

As office desk calendar pages fluttered down on Montgomery Street to welcome 1983 (yes, that was an annual thing then), downtown San Francisco looked, felt, and sounded different somehow.

No clack of the cables under California and Powell Streets. No hum of PCC streetcars along Market. No gongs or bells from either type of vintage rail vehicle, sounds and sights that had defined San Francisco for a century.

The cable cars were gone only temporarily. But the streamlined PCC streetcars were supposedly gone for good, stored on a pier pending probable disposal, while gleaming new light rail vehicles glided through the new Muni Metro Subway below Market Street. The migration of the five existing surface streetcar lines to the new vehicles and subway had been completed in September 1982.

That subway and its vehicles proved the biggest single issue for Muni over the last 20 years of its first century…and well beyond. We’ve written a comprehensive story on the operational problems of Muni Metro . Click that link for the full subway story; we won’t delve into the details here.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
STREETCAR SALVATION—The Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980s proved the concept that vintage vehicles could be efficient and attractive in regular transit service on Market Street, and provided the impetus for the permanent F-line. The Festivals included some wonderful neighborhood runs as well, such as this day on the N-line on Carl Street, where 1923 ex-Muni No. 178, leased from the Western Railway Museum in Solano County, heads for Ocean Beach, passing 1903 Portland Council Crest car No. 503, headed back downtown. Rick Laubscher photo, MSR Archive

Saving Surface Streetcars

Some years after the bond issue to build BART and the Muni Metro Subway under Market Street passed in 1962, it became City policy to remove surface streetcars and trolley buses as well from Market Street once the subway opened. A key goal was to contribute to the “beautification” of Market Street by ridding it of the overhead wires that powered Muni’s electric vehicles. A long campaign by a coalition that included trolley bus riders succeeded in saving those vehicles’ place on Market in 1972 (though by that time another City department had replaced the sturdy historic “Path of Gold” streetlights, which also held up the Muni wires, with replicas not strong enough for that task. That ultimately triggered a very expensive retrofit).

But the PCC streetcars were still supposed to be retired and the tracks eliminated from Market when the subway opened. An ad hoc group of planners in Muni and outside streetcar fans worked to save them. In 1981 and 1982, Muni planners called attention to the anticipated end of surface streetcar service by running Muni’s restored Car 1 on Market Street and the J-line (adding 1923 Muni car No. 178. leased from a museum, in 1982). It helped inspire a proposal by the author of this article, with support from transit activist Maurice Klebolt (who had provoked the vintage streetcar discussion by foisting a Hamburg tram on Muni in 1979) to run a summer ‘Historic Trolley Festival’ on Market Street in 1983. The great success of that first festival and the stalwart support of Mayor Dianne Feinstein led to four more summer festivals and irreversible momentum for permanent historic streetcar service, which began on Market in 1995 and was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000. Here’s our comprehensive story of the Trolley Festivals, with lots of photos.

Cable car collapse

The Trolley Festival concept appealed to Mayor Feinstein as a substitute attraction for the city’s shut-down cable car system, the rebuilding of which was Muni’s biggest project of the 1980s.

The cable car system, inherited by Muni from previous private-company owners in 1944 and 1952, was completely worn out by the 1970s, and had to be shut down for six months in late 1979 for emergency repairs. That was just a Band-aid, though. It was clear repair wasn’t enough; the system needed full replacement.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
SCLEROTIC – Cable winding machinery in the Washington-Mason Powerhouse, 1981. Beyond the worn out equipment, the building itself was seismically unsafe. Bill Owyang photo, SFMTA Archive

Mayor Dianne Feinstein took personal charge of the situation, rounding up federal capital money augmented by contributions from business. Under her leadership and that of Virgil Caselli, general manager of Ghirardelli Square, who headed the Save the Cable Cars Committee, the entire cable car system, including the car barn, tracks, and machinery, was rebuilt in just 21 months, concluding with a grand reopening in time for the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1984, the Mayor’s deadline. 

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
BREAKING GROUND TO FIX A BROKEN SYSTEM – Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Save The Cable Cars Chair Virgil Caselli (R) break ground at the Washington-Mason Cable Car Barn on October 21, 1982 to begin the complete rehabilitation of the system. SFMTA Archive
Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
DOWN TO DIRT AND BACK – The 1982-84 cable car “rehabilitation” was actually a total rebuild. The cable car barn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets (above) was totally gutted; a new foundation and internal steel frame would hold up everything inside, leaving the original bricks in place, now relieved of having to bear any loads. The underground vault holding the sheaves (wheels) guiding the four operating cables in and out of the powerhouse was completely replaced (foreground). Every foot of track (except the first block of Powell, replaced ten years earlier) was dug out and replaced, including the curve at Jackson and Powell below. When Muni photographer Carmen Magana took these two photos on December 28, 1983 (Muni’s 71st birthday), It didn’t look possible that the system could reopen by the following July. But it did. SFMTA Archive
Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012

The cable cars themselves were repaired during the shutdown, with the Powell cars repainted in a new livery of maroon and sky blue evocative of both the California Street livery and the original (1888) Powell livery, which had reappeared on cable car No. 1, renovated for the 1973 centennial of Andrew Hallidie’s first cable line on Clay Street. One Powell car, No. 3, was left in the pre-shutdown green and cream livery. This in turn inspired an ongoing program, strongly supported and facilitated by our organization, to reintroduce every major historic Powell Street cable car livery to the fleet. Eleven of the 28 Powell cars now wear genuine liveries representing Powell line colors seen on the street since 1888.

Harold Geissenheimer

Next to Mayor Feinstein, perhaps the biggest single influence on Muni in the first half of the 1980s was a new general manager, Harold Geissenheimer. Muni had previously chosen its top executives from within its own ranks, and was the first major US transit system to appoint a Black general manager, Curtis Green, in the late 1970s. But Green’s tenure saw major maintenance meltdowns, caused in part by underfunding, and when he retired in 1982, Feinstein wanted a tough-minded manager to take a tough look at the way Muni did things.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
HERE’S HAROLD – Newly arrived Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer with Crown-Ikarus demonstrator articulated motor coach, November 2, 1982. SFMTA Archive

Enter Geissenheimer, an old-school transit lifer who came to Muni from the Chicago Transit Authority. Geissenheimer was a workaholic who lived with his elderly mother, whom he sometimes took with him on rides around the system. He was also one of the country’s leading railfans, and there is no doubt that his personal interest in the first Trolley Festival, planning for which was already underway on his arrival in late 1982, overcame internal resistance to the project. The author, who served as volunteer project manager for the Festivals, believes that without Geissenheimer’s deep personal interest, and his relentless enforcement of deadlines, the antipathy in parts of Muni toward vintage operations could well have scuttled the first Festival, irrespective of the Mayor’s wishes. For that reason alone, Geissenheimer must be mentioned here.

But Geissenheimer’s interests extended to every corner of Muni operations. He would show up, unannounced, at maintenance facilities around the system at any and all hours, including the graveyard shift, and personally discipline workers who were breaking rules. This was a huge change from the longstanding “go along to get along” practices in Muni, which brought peer pressure against workers who “worked too hard”.

Geissenheimer faced an entrenched culture unused to being scrutinized. In this way, Muni was very much like most San Francisco City and County departments in that era (and, frankly, for decades afterward). By most accounts, he was making inroads when he abruptly resigned for personal reasons in 1985.

Boeing Boeing Gone

After the motor coach debacle of the early 1980s (recounted in the last installment of this history), Muni’s biggest headache for the rest of the 1980s and well into the 1990s were the Boeing-Vertol LRVs, foisted on Muni (and Boston) by the Feds in a well-intentioned “swords to plowshares” transformation of a Vietnam-era helicopter plant to build streetcars. The “Buy American” strings attached to UMTA funding of the light rail vehicles precluded Muni from buying proven European vehicles.

The Boeing LRVs were a maintenance headache from the beginning. Their unique high-low moveable steps that enabled both subway platform and street boarding were failure-prone, as were their doors. Waves of modifications were done to the fleet (which grew to 130 cars after Muni bought thirty of Boston’s, which considered the Boeings unacceptable junk), never producing a reliable car throughout their lifespan. As the last ones were finally going out of service, then-Muni boss Michael Burns was asked if he would put one into Muni’s historic fleet for the F-line. Burns replied that the only place he wanted to see those LRVs was in the scrapyard.

The articulated Boeings were 50% longer than the PCCs they replaced but 75% heavier. Some of this was for passenger comforts, such as air conditioning, that the PCCs lacked. But the extra weight was hard on the existing surface tracks. The Boeings, in turn, were replaced between 1997 and 2003 by a fleet of 151 LRVs from Ansaldo Breda of Italy, assembled in South San Francisco with some US components to meet the “Buy American” requirement for federal aid. The Bredas were even heavier than the Boeings, beating up track and switches and stirring complaints from residents along surface portions of their routes, who said the vibrations could actually shake their homes. (After Muni’s Centennial, the end-point of this history, Muni ordered a new generation of LRVs from Siemens, built in Sacramento).

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
BRIGHT SHINY OBJECTS – When the Boeing LRVs and Muni Metro Subway were new, as here at West Portal Station in 1982, they represented a transformation for Muni. But very quickly, operational problems in the subway, major maintenance problems with the LRVs, and dirt and graffiti took the shine off the system. Bill Owyang photo, SFMTA Archive

Subway Headaches

As we recount in our comprehensive subway story, the balky Boeings were only part of the problem for Muni Metro riders. After losing its shot at pure rapid transit, Muni management tried to figure out how to make the Market Street Subway work with five different surface streetcar lines feeding it. An early attempt featured coupling at the two subway entrances, West Portal (for the K, L, and M lines) and Duboce and Church (for the J and N). Schedules were cut that had LRVs from the different lines converge at the portals, where inspectors would couple them together into trains for subway operation. But running in street traffic on the outer ends of the routes made it impossible to consistently arrive at the subway portals at scheduled times. The frequent delays waiting for the cars from different lines to come together frustrated Muni inspectors, operators, and passengers alike. 

At the east end of the subway, Embarcadero Station, the failure to build a track loop caused long backups as crews changed ends of multi-car trains. Muni tried having operators ‘drop back’ at Embarcadero to the following train to speed the turnaround, but that was unsuccessful.

Ultimately, after years of planning and discussion, Muni extended the subway south, building additional turnback tracks under the Embarcadero and a portal to bring trains to the surface at Folsom Street. This, in turn, enabled what was called the Muni Metro Extension (MMX), expanding LRV service to the Caltrain Depot at Fourth and King Streets. Muni also installed a new subway signal system that was supposed to improve capacity but caused recurring headaches of its own.

The MMX, coupled with the installation of an attractive pedestrian promenade on the southern Embarcadero, spurred residential development in what had long been a warehouse area. The efficient new rail service also made the China Basin area more attractive to the new ownership of San Francisco Giants, who desperately wanted to escape remote, chilly, auto-oriented Candlestick Park. A waterside site at Third & King proved perfect for the San Francisco Giants, fostering a renaissance for both the baseball team and the neighborhood.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
SURFACING THE SUBWAY – The Muni Metro’s eastern portal at Folsom Street. When it was built, the roadway was moved inland, taking over the foot of Steuart Street to allow creation of a waterfront park and promenade with public art. A connection to the F-line with surface tracks, resisted by Muni leaders of the time, was made thanks to advocacy from groups put together by our nonprofit. Here, a PCC on the E-Embarcadero vintage line passes the portal while a Breda LRV dives in. Rick Laubscher photo

To further help with subway capacity, Muni fulfilled a dream dating back at least as far as 1925—extending the J-Church line through the Bernal Cut along San Jose Avenue. This old Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way, originally blasted out for freight trains, saw its first streetcars in 1991—J and N LRVs heading to and from the carbarn. Muni felt the extension was justified just for the labor savings and subway congestion relief in providing a shorter, surface connection between the barn and the outer end of the J and N lines, but had to promise regular revenue service to win support for the plan from residents. Accordingly, regular J-line service on the extension was inaugurated in 1993, even though this stretched the already inadequate fleet of sclerotic Boeing LRVs even further.

Muni also worked to speed service on the M-Ocean View line by building two high-platform stations at Stonestown and San Francisco State on 19th Avenue. These opened in 1995, demonstrating a full turnaround for the once hapless M-line, so bereft of riders in its early years that Muni shut it down altogether in 1939. Now, the direct-to-downtown service it provided helped serve students, shoppers, and residents of the city’s growing southwest quadrant. But a plan to improve efficiency by cutting the M-line back to San Francisco State and replacing its lightly ridden outer end with an extension of the J-line was beaten back by neighbors opposed to terminals for the two lines in the middle of 19th Avenue.

Governance Evolution

While many of our readers are primarily interested in Muni vehicles and routes, the way the agency is governed is hugely important to the effective operation of the system.

Though Muni was (and is) a department of the City and County of San Francisco, its general manager in the 1980s and 1990s did not report directly to the Mayor (though of course mayors had always had a big say on what happened at Muni). Muni was one of several departments under the control of the Public Utilities Commission, whose five commissioners were appointed by the mayor. The PUC’s general manager also oversaw the Water Department and Hetch Hetchy Water and Power, which included the City’s reservoirs and hydroelectric generation stations in the Sierra Nevada. “Hetchy”, as it was commonly known, supplied Muni’s zero-emission power for its electric vehicles. In this structure, the PUC general manager was top dog, and some exerted hands-on leadership over Muni’s general manager when things went awry. This was a different governance structure than many other major US transit systems, where the top executive reported directly to the governing board.

In San Francisco’s turf-conscious City and County bureaucracy, Muni often found itself at odds with the Department of Public Works (DPW), a powerful agency that controlled the City’s streets. When Muni initially went to implement a “Transit First” policy in the 1980s, adopted by the City to give Muni vehicles priority on key streets, DPW was less than enthusiastic in making the street changes to implement it. Additionally, the San Francisco Police Department, a fiefdom in its own right, deployed few resources from its traffic bureau to enforce the transit lanes (a problem that has persisted since).

The old structure also empowered the Board of Supervisors to provide close oversight on many matters that affected Muni performance. For example, citizens could petition the Supervisors directly to install stop signs in their neighborhood, and as a rule, the Supervisors complied, even when it slowed Muni service.

In an attempt to improve Muni service, voters in 1999 passed a proposition to move Muni under a new governance structure that also included the Department of Parking and Traffic, providing control over how city street lanes were allocated (as well as providing a source of revenue from parking meters and City-run garages). The new entity was called the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which in 2007 absorbed responsibility for taxis as well. This has allowed the agency to act multi-modally, through such actions as a network of bicycle lanes and pedestrian safety measures, as well as expanding Muni vehicle lanes. But the governance change also reduced the power of the Board of Supervisors over these areas.

A different governance evolution gave the Board of Supervisors much more power over San Francisco transportation, arguably diverting considerable amounts of capital funding from Muni. Changes in state law required California counties (including San Francisco, the only joint city-county in the state) to form county transportation agencies governed by elected (not appointed) officials, for the purpose of administering transportation sales taxes passed by local voters. The first such measure passed by San Francisco voters in 1989 was Proposition B, about which, more below.

As originally set up, the San Francisco County Transportation Agency (SFCTA) had a very small staff. Its governing body was the Board of Supervisors, acting in this different capacity but still driven by the same political forces. The SFCTA set up a Citizens Advisory Committee. The author was chosen for the first such CAC and later chaired that body. In the initial years, planning was left to Muni, since the major prospective projects presented to voters in Proposition B were Muni projects. However, over the years, the SFCTA, encouraged by its governing body, sought more staff and power. As additional sales tax measures passed, this led to funding of more major non-Muni projects, which the SFCTA (and the Supervisors) could directly oversee.

Two such billion-dollar-plus projects primarily benefited commuters from outside the county: the rebuilding of the dangerous approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, known as Doyle Drive (the responsibility of the state department of transportation, Caltrans) and the replacement of the old Transbay Terminal at First and Mission (also owned by the State of California) by a highly elaborate new terminal to serve East Bay bus commuters, plus space underneath for future high speed rail to Los Angeles (though the connection under the South of Market streets to the existing commuter rail corridor remains unfunded and is undergoing yet another planning-go-round at this writing).

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
HALF A DREAM – This cutaway drawing envisioned underground high speed and commuter rail as the key passenger generator for the multi-billion dollar Salesforce Transit Center, with its spectacular Grand Hall and a four-block linear rooftop park. But funding the center, which was touted as “Grand Central of the West”, ate up money supposed to actually bring in the trains, which almost certainly won’t arrive until 2030 or beyond. Several Muni bus lines terminate here. TJPA photo.

Both of those projects were years late and way over budget, though both have been widely recognized for their aesthetics. Under past governance structures, however, this sales tax money might well have gone to Muni projects.

As a City department, Muni has always been subject to local politics, of course. And while the 1999 vote creating the SFMTA aimed at easing political influence to some extent, that revised governance structure still differs from most major transit agencies, with the top transit executive actually the Number Two (at best) person in the organization. This, plus the very high cost of living in San Francisco, makes it tough to recruit seasoned professionals with high levels of competence and integrity from other cities to come run Muni. As for the top SFMTA job, its diverse responsibilities and are not attractive to many pure-transit executives. As a result, SFMTA leadership since its formation has been dominated by appointees trusted by the mayor at the time, few of whom have had direct transit operations management experience.

$how Muni the Money!

The evolution of governance tracked with the evolution of funding, not entirely coincidentally. Ever since the passage of the federal Urban Mass Transportation Act in 1964, governments at all levels increasingly understood that US public transit had to be subsidized. Muni and other agencies built staffs to pursue and administer such funding. In the Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission was set up to parcel out funding from non-local sources to the region’s many agencies. While Muni leaders always fretted about having enough money, the inflow of both operating and capital subsidies allowed for more predictable and timely replacement of the bus and light rail fleets on a regular schedule than had been possible in earlier decades.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
BENDY BUS – That British term never caught on in the US, but it’s a cool moniker for Muni’s first fleet of articulated 60-foot motor coaches, from M-A-N, pictured here on the 38-line on Geary Boulevard in Front of Muni Headquarters in 1988. “Artic” is the shorthand for these buses at Muni. SFMTA Archive

New Generations of Buses

Muni acquired its first articulated (bend-in-the-middle) 60-foot diesel buses from MAN in 1984, along with new 40-foot (standard length) diesel buses from New Flyer. Subsequent diesel fleet replacement buses came from North American Bus Industries (NABI), Neoplan, and Orion, in 30-, 40-, and 60-foot lengths, giving Muni more operating flexibility. In 2007, Muni took delivery of its first diesel hybrid-electric buses, and in its centennial year, 2012, was ordering a full fleet of them.

On the trolley bus side, Muni gained its first 60-foot articulated trolley coaches in 1994, from New Flyer. In 2002, a new 40-foot trolley bus fleet started arriving to replace the 1975 Flyer fleet. These were designed by Skoda, a reliable Czech supplier of trolley coaches throughout Europe, but to meet “Buy American” requirements, they had to be assembled in the US through a joint company, ETI. That company, which also supplied Muni some 60-foot trolley coaches, later went out of business, making parts very hard to obtain and shortening the useful life of the buses.

Those two groups of buses were the first Muni trolley coaches with on-board battery capacity to allow for operation without overhead wires to get around line blockages. In its centennial year, Muni was contemplating its next generation of trolley coaches, which started arriving in 2015, built by New Flyer with the same body style as the diesel-electric hybrids Muni was acquiring, the first time Muni’s trolley coach and motor coach fleets shared a common body appearance. Further, all of the New Flyer buses arrived in the same silver and red livery as the Breda LRVs, giving Muni a uniform livery across its entire non-historic vehicle fleet for the first time since 1939.

This regular bus replacement, using extensive federal and state funding, was a very long way indeed from Muni’s early days, when the only funding source were nickels dropped into fareboxes and budgeting consisted of ensuring that operating costs were lower than the revenues from all those nickels. A long way, too, from the days when Muni had to resort to leases and accounting tricks to replace worn-out vehicles.

(Those seeking a comprehensive history of every Muni vehicle from 1912 to 2018 should check out this book by Paul Bignardi in our online store. We also offer magnets of many Muni buses and light rail vehicles as well as the historic streetcars and cable cars, available nowhere else.)

Sales Tax Funds Rail Renaissance

After decades of saying ‘no’ to Muni requests at the ballot box, San Francisco voters in 1989 gave Muni the opportunity for rail rejuvenation by passing a half-cent sales tax increase for a 20-year period. The ballot measure pledged funding for a variety of projects, including the permanent F-Market vintage streetcar line between Castro Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. It also pledged the parallel development of new light rail lines on Third Street and along Geary. Each would include a subway under Downtown.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
HERE COMES THE F—The F-line’s permanent opening on September 1, 1995 featured a parade led by the popular Blackpool, England ‘Boat tram’. MSR photo.

F Came First

The permanent F-line was constructed starting in 1988, forcing an end to the five-year run of Trolley Festivals. The first phase opened between Castro and Transbay Terminal on 1995, and was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000.

The F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar line, which replaced the 8-Market trolley coach and later the 32-Embarcadero motor coach as well, more than doubled the combined ridership of those bus lines. Its great popularity overwhelmed the initial fleet of seventeen restored PCC streetcars (fourteen from Philadelphia, the other three original Muni double-enders), forcing the rushed acquisition of ten vintage 1928 Milan trams to fill the gaps. Later, eleven more used PCCs, this time from Newark, were purchased and restored. Four more 1948 Muni double-enders and 1952 Muni PCC Car 1040 were also restored under the same contract to provide more capacity for the F-line and the long-planned E-Embarcadero line.

As planning proceeded for the other two rail lines mentioned in the sales tax measure, on Geary and Third Street, it became clear that the level of community support would play a role, because the measure didn’t provide enough money to build both. Muni planners assumed that Geary would win. The 38-Geary was Muni’s busiest bus line; indeed, one of the busiest in America. Analysis of the Third Street indicated it would save riders only a few minutes over the existing 15-line motor coach from the outer end of the line to Downtown.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
SUNNY WITH RAIN—Its destination sign reading “Sunnydale” its southern terminal at the County Line, a Muni LRV waits for Mayor Gavin Newsom (above the red bow) and other officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to wield the giant scissors at the Fourth and King station that will officially open the T-Third Street light rail line in 2007. The rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of San Franciscans celebrating the return of streetcar service out Third Street after some 65 years. The T-line was a major capital accomplishment of Muni as it neared its centennial. Note historic PCC Car 1015 on the other track, part of the celebratory entourage. SFMTA Archive

The T-Line

But along the route of what is now called the T-line, residents, businesses and property owners stepped up in support of rail, saying it would revitalize their neighborhoods, and saying Muni was overdue in bringing rail service to what was then a heavily African-American Community. Along Geary by contrast, opposition from merchants in the Richmond District outweighed support from many Muni riders and neighbors —echoes of the 1950s, when merchant opposition to streetcars helped kill Muni’s B-Geary line.

That difference in public support along the route is part of what tipped the balance toward the T-line. An even bigger part was the activism of one of Chinatown’s most powerful people, Rose Pak, who was furious that the Embarcadero Freeway had been torn down after being badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. She said it had been a lifeline for business in Chinatown and demanded a subway into Chinatown to make up for it.

The first part of the T-line to be built was the surface portion, starting at the County Line and following Bayshore Boulevard and then Third Street north five miles through Visitacion Valley, Bayview, Dogpatch, and Mission Bay neighborhoods, reaching Fourth and King Streets and the Caltrain commuter rail depot.

When this first phase of the T-line opened in 2007, it was initially connected to the N-Judah line on King Street, descending into the Market Street Subway at Folsom Street and terminating at the Castro Street Station. But the attempt to turn back at Castro clogged up the subway, and the T was soon through-routed with the K-Ingleside to try to address that problem. The T-line’s cars were stored and serviced at a large new light rail facility, Muni Metro East, at 25th and Illinois streets, spacious enough to accommodate future light rail expansion.

But the newly constructed segment along Third Street was not even a few minutes faster than the old 15-Third bus. Instead, it proved considerably slower, garnering complaints from residents. On the other hand, the presence of a rail line helped spur major economic development in the neighborhoods just south of the Giants’ new ballpark – Mission Bay and China Basin. New live-work lofts, office buildings, and hospitals sprang up there, while some new apartment buildings have arisen on Third Street in the southern Bayview District. 

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
WELCOME TO THE BAYVIEW—This 2007 scene at Third and Palou Streets demonstrates Muni’s commitment to better serving the city’s southeastern neighborhoods. The ETI trolley coach is at the terminal of the 24-Divisadero line, electrified and extended eastward from its original Noe Valley terminal in the early 1980s. The Breda LRV is northbound on the T-Third line. R.C. DeArmond photo.

When the surface portion of the T-line opened in 2007, planning had already been underway several years for the second phase of the T-line, a subway to reach Chinatown. One early option was a route under Third and Kearny Streets, which would have run along the border between Chinatown and the Financial District, providing service to both. Pak wanted it under Stockton Street, Chinatown’s main shopping street two uphill blocks west of Kearny, instead. Her political ally, Mayor Willie Brown, saw it her way.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
STRAIGHTEN THAT OUT – Above, the convoluted alignment for the Central Subway proposed early on; below, the straightened version finally adopted in 2008 and subsequently built. Click to enlarge. Courtesy Transbay Blog
Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012

Several routings to reach Stockton were proposed, including a convoluted jog from Fourth to Third on King Street, then underground to cross Market, where the tracks would make a super-tight turn under Geary, followed by another onto Stockton. This was favored by some Muni planners, who wanted connections there to a future Geary Subway. After years of studies and arguments, the SFMTA Board of Directors instead adopted a straight-line route under Fourth and Stockton streets in 2008, mirroring the F-Stockton streetcar’s route during the late 1940s. The subway on the southern end of Fourth Street was shorter than originally proposed, forced by too-high cost estimates. Soaring cost estimates also forced shorter platforms in the underground stations, allowing only two-car trains instead of three-car trains, and significantly limiting the feasibility to extend the subway more than one stop farther, to North Beach, in the future Ground was broken for the Central Subway in 2010. (Completion is finally expected, years late and well over budget, in 2022.)

Bus Rapid Transit

City voters renewed their commitment to an extra sales tax for transportation in 2003, spawning additional proposed projects including bus rapid transit (BRT) lines on Geary (the subway idea having lost out) and Van Ness Avenue. As Muni celebrated its centennial at the end of 2012, an Environmental Impact Statement was close to being finalized for Van Ness BRT, after eight full years of planning.

Completing a century: Muni 1983-2012
CENTER DEAD – Concept from 2011, later rejected, showing center island stations for Van Ness Avenue Bus Rapid Transit Project, which would have required a dedicated fleet of buses with left-hand doors. Courtesy sf.streetsblog.org

The original plan for Van Ness BRT emulated successful operations in Latin America, featuring center boarding islands with custom buses that included left-hand boarding doors and platforms that matched the height of the bus floor, allowing faster, level boarding and full accessibility without lifts. However, Muni decided against a special bus fleet, and built the platforms lower than the bus floor. (Ground was finally broken on Van Ness BRT in 2017, with the line not opening until 2022, years late and well over budget.)

Geary BRT, expected to draw far more riders, was not as far along as Van Ness at the end of Muni’s first century. Some transit advocates were still fighting for rail, with a subway under Geary to Cathedral Hill surfacing at Japantown and possibly running as an elevated structure above the eight-lane Geary Expressway, created in the early 1960s after the B-Geary streetcars had been ripped out and hundreds of homes housing African-American families torn down in the name of “urban renewal”.

Eventually, plans took shape for a project much like Van Ness, with bus lanes and stops in the street median west of Cathedral Hill. But as had become typical for Muni projects, planners’ dreams didn’t match available funding, and any dream of installing tracks in the exclusive bus lanes to facilitate a future rail revival on Muni’s first streetcar corridor were dead by Muni’s centennial year. (Geary BRT plans were further cut back, drastically, in the early 2020s, with the center bus medians killed off in favor of much cheaper continued curb lane running, with some signal prioritization and other features. Yet again, Muni’s busiest corridor was short-changed for effective service.)

Reflecting on a Century of Muni

Since Civil War days, San Francisco has grown both economically and physically in part on the wheels of mass transit. For the first half-century of that era, privately owned companies provided that transit, in pursuit of profit.

Then came something new: a transit system owned by the people themselves, formed in reaction to the clear corruption of the existing operations. With political will, this new system quickly opened up empty quarters of the city to housing and businesses by tying those areas effectively to the thriving downtown core. But the same political pressures for low fares that drove the private companies out of business made Muni a deficit utility too, at just the time San Francisco stopped its population growth and families decamped for the suburbs.

But a city as dense as San Francisco can’t function without mass transit, and Muni maintained the highest per capita riding levels of any American city, even as its vehicles and facilities deteriorated. Outside tax money from federal and state sources helped Muni along, and new local fees and taxes helped it renew, even as fares covered less and less of its costs.

Sen Feinstein Mayor Lee Dignitaries on Car 1, April 5, 2012
CELEBRATING A CENTURY – Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the author, and other dignitaries on the platform of newly-restored 1912 Muni Car 1 are joined by SFMTA head Ed Reiskin, SFMTA Board Chair Tom Nolan, members of the Board of Supervisors and SFMTA Board of Directors to kick off Muni’s Centennial Year celebration, April 5, 2012. SFMTA photo

All the while, Muni progressed in terms of employment equity, after being forced to hire women and minorities during World War II. African-Americans would come to be a majority of Muni operators, even as the city’s gentrification forced many to leave their San Francisco homes and join the hordes of commuters coming into town to work. Slowly but steadily, people of color gained proper representation, sooner than other City government departments. Muni made national history in 1974 by naming Curtis Green, who started at Muni as a bus driver, as the first Black transit chief in America. His appointment was driven by another barrier-breaker, Public Utilities Commission Chair H. Welton Flynn.

As Muni marched through its first century, the projects it undertook took longer and cost more, way beyond the effects of inflation. Some of that was caused by rules and regulations, but some was also caused by protracted planning processes, an increasing array of consultants, competing bureaucracies, and political interference. These factors, plus continuing difficulties in accurately estimating costs, yielded projects that delivered far less value than initially promised.

In a city that has increasingly demanded inclusion and equity, Muni also came to face demands to provide transit at a substantial discount, or even without charge, to large groups of riders, further straining its finances. Antipathy toward fare enforcement by activists and some elected officials led to resentment by riders who dutifully paid their fares only to watch others ignore the farebox and face no sanctions.

Imperfect but indispensable

As it celebrated its 100th anniversary on December 28, 2012, Muni could be described as imperfect but indispensable to San Franciscans. On balance, it has made San Francisco a better and more livable city, carrying five generations to work, shop, learn, and play.

Flaws and all, that’s something to be proud of.

  • By Rick Laubscher

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Comments: 1

  1. Thanks Rick! I have been a member of MSR for several years and I initially joined after a trip to San Francisco to visit my brother and I discovered the F Line and the museum while exploring the city. It made me want to learn more about Muni and I have become a fan of bay area transit. I have bought books, DVD’s and other material to learn all I can. I also have been collecting items on the Key System. So thanks again for your efforts to bring this information to us. I am looking forward to being a member of MSR for a long time to come. Jeff

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