San Francisco's beloved cable cars--well on their way to being saved

Tourists come here with a fascination for cable cars. So when the antique transit system fails to operate, feelings, understandably, run high.

During one recent breakdown, a distinctly east coast voice chimed in, ''We've come all the way from Bahston just to ride the cable cahs. And now they're not running!''

The cars were supposed to have been running. But late the previous night a crucial drive shaft in the mechanism that keeps the cables moving beneath the streets of San Francisco had snapped. For a few days it was feared the cable system - scheduled to shut down Sept. 22 for a 20-month rebuilding period - had shut itself down prematurely.

With the aid of an ingenious city engineer, the cars began running again within a week - although not soon enough for the man from ''Bahston.''

His affection for the cable cars was not unusual. It's shared worldwide, as those raising funds to help save the unique system for getting up and down San Francisco's steep hills have found. The ''Save the Cable Cars'' campaign has received donations from all over the US and many foreign countries in the last two years.

With $8.2 million of its $10 million goal in hand, the Committee to Save the Cable Cars is not announcing success yet. It would like to have the full amount in hand by the time work on the antiquated cable system begins three months from now. But the track ahead appears clear. On July 1 Arthur J. Teale, administrator of the Federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration, presented a check for $ 12.5 million to Mayor Dianne Feinstein.

Earlier the mayor received an unusual ''letter of intent'' from US Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis promising that the Department of Transportation will provide $44.6 million for the project. The state is contributing $3.6 million as well.

Besides gifts of $100,000 to $1 million from more than a score of US companies, a number of Japanese firms have made donations totaling more than $ 500,000. Thomas Powers, director of Save the Cable Cars, notes several reasons for this Japanese ''connection:'' The city has many residents of Japanese origin , more tourists from Japan visit this city than from any other foreign country, and Japanese-based businesses have long been a part of the local commercial scene.

Tourists who come to San Francisco in the two-year period when the system is down for repairs apparently will be able to experience an ersatz cable-car ride. A local businessman who has run motorized replicas of cable cars on special occasions has been given the go-ahead by the city to provide service.

San Franciscans, who are as fond of their cable cars as are visitors, will have that fondness tested in the next two years. Traffic in a large downtown area will be disrupted while streets are torn up to replace worn-out parts of the system.

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