For the past 40 years, San Francisco has treated its iconic cable cars differently from the rest of the Muni transit system.
For starters, the cable car system can't be eliminated, as cost-conscious mayors tried in the past until voters said no way in 1971. Ten years later, Muni began charging more to ride a cable car than a bus or a streetcar - a growing division that will become even more pronounced next month when a one-way cable car fare will jump a buck to $6, triple the cost of riding any other Muni vehicle.
"The idea of thinking differently about cable cars as a part of Muni has been evolving for a long time," said Emiliano Echeverria, a historian who has written extensively about San Francisco's transportation system.
Charging passengers more to ride the cable cars - the country's only mobile national landmark - is a necessity, given their higher costs to maintain, he said.
"The money has to come from somewhere," said Echeverria, a retired signal operator and track repairman on the cable car system. "I don't like it, but there aren't a lot of options."
Wayne Veatch, a retired attorney who has lived in the city since 1973, doesn't like it, period. The two-tier fare system, he said, "is a statement that cable cars are an amusement ride, not a part of San Francisco's transportation system, and another opportunity for San Francisco to fleece the tourists."
The fare-increase plan, he said, "is a step in the wrong direction."
The city's three cable car lines now generate $25.6 million in annual revenue and have close to 8 million boardings a year - just a fraction of what Muni's workhorse lines like the 14-Mission bus or the N-Judah streetcar carry.
Muni doesn't track whether the cable cars are used most by locals or visitors, but a lot of the passengers pay a cash fare or use a one-day, three-day or seven-day "passport" favored by tourists, indicating the cable cars get a lot of use from out-of-towners.
San Franciscans who make them part of their commute usually use their monthly Fast Pass, which allows for unlimited rides on a cable car, bus or streetcar. Others can grab different Muni lines that near the cable car routes.
"There are options," said Muni chief Nathaniel Ford.
Michael Davis, who lives South of Market, rides the cable car a couple of times a year, most recently on Tuesday when he accompanied his sister and her three children who were visiting from Southern California. They were on the second leg of a round-trip excursion, which set them back $50 for the five of them.
"It's a San Francisco treat," said Davis, a software developer, shooting a quick glance, and smile, toward his relatives.
For tourists who put a cable car ride on their must-do list when they visit San Francisco, the fare is simply added to a vacation tab that may also include a trip to Alcatraz, an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista and a fleece jacket to ward against the unexpected chill.
"It's something fun, isn't it? asked Dianne Johnston, 61, a visitor from Brisbane, Australia, as she got ready to take her first cable car Tuesday morning for a trip from Fisherman's Wharf to downtown. "I wouldn't miss it."
She and her three companions didn't think twice about spending $5 apiece for the only-in-San Francisco experience. What she wasn't ready to do is to shell out $10 for a round-trip excursion.
Unlike the rest of the Muni system, transfers aren't allowed on the cable cars. For example, that means riders who get off to grab a photo of the "crookedest street" portion of Lombard Street off the Hyde Street line have to hand over another $5 to ride to the end of the line.
There was talk by city officials after the last fare increase in 2005, when the cost jumped to $5 from $3, to allow limited transfers or to let children ride free, but it never went anywhere. Muni's chronic budget deficit is driving the July 1 fare hike, which the Municipal Transportation Agency governing board approved last year.
Cable cars cost $384.16 per hour to operate compared with $165.87 for a bus or $247.28 for a light-rail train.
"They're an important part of our transportation system," Ford said, "but they cost a lot."
Copyright 2008 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.