There's a world of difference between standing in the cold desiring a streetcar and A Streetcar Named Desire. But, thanks to San Francisco's ongoing drive to ensure those streetcars are more crowded and arrive less frequently, the gap between this city's transit reality and Tennessee Williams' melodrama is narrowing.
In our local presentation of Streetcar, the role of Blanche DuBois will be played by a streetcar. And a light rail vehicle. And an articulated bus. In fact, Blanche will be played by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
Blanche is a woman/transit agency who needs a protector. But she wasn't getting one from Stanley Kowalski, the role in which a smoldering Marlon Brando acquainted America with the nuances of the Napoleonic Code and the white T-shirt. Here, that will be handled by Gavin Newsom. In the play, Kowalski marginalizes and sexually assaults DuBois. In San Francisco, our erstwhile mayor siphoned Muni funds to pay his advisers' lucrative salaries, and allowed other city departments to pillage the agency, using Muni as a city slush fund. This is still happening.
Blanche was also done wrong by seemingly nice guy Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, played by Karl Malden in the 1951 film. Mitch tries to lay hands on Blanche, because that's all he thought she was good for. He's played in San Francisco by city progressives — who can't think of anything to do for Muni other than cajole it into putting out for free.
Despite Muni's gaping budget shortfall, momentum is gaining behind persistent efforts to make it free for all children — roughly one of every six Muni riders. Supervisor David Campos, the author of this plan, says funds from multiple city and regional agencies — including Muni and the school district — will backfill the two-year pilot program's $16.8 million price tag. This cost, incidentally, does not include funds for more service to meet the predicted additional demand. Muni, however, is run about as well as DuBois ran her life — and Campos suggests the agency save money by not allowing itself to be pillaged by other city departments, cutting down overtime, and keeping capital projects from stretching years past due.
If Campos is the Tennessee Williams of the "Free Muni For Kids" plan, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd is the heckler in the back row. "This is emblematic of what government does wrong," he says. "You're expanding services while ignoring core functions and making it that much more difficult to provide them — namely, running your basic routes on time, and simple delivery of Muni service for everyone."
In the end, Muni doesn't just depend upon the kindness of strangers — strangers also have to pay. Perhaps proponents of making Muni free are inadvertently channeling Blanche DuBois: "I don't want realism. I want magic!"