It was supposed to be one of those run-of-the-mill photo-ops. To celebrate the coming centennial of San Francisco’s Municipal Rail system, Mayor Ed Lee was to get behind the controls of historic Streetcar One. The plan was for him to drive about a block, under the careful tutelage of the pros, giving the TV cameras a folksy shot of the mayor. One snag, though. He wouldn’t surrender the controls.
The streetcar lumbered down Market Street as pedestrians did double-takes at the mustachioed politico staring intently ahead. Block after block he drove, with a giddy Senator Dianne Feinstein standing behind him, her baffled security detail driving behind the streetcar (she was supposed to have disembarked after the first block.)
This same scene played out a century ago. Only San Francisco Mayor, “Sunny” Jim Rolf was at the helm of Streetcar One, marking the opening of the city-owned municipal rail line.
“Back then all the streetcars were owned by electric utilities or other private companies for profit,” said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway, a non-profit that helps restore the city’s rail lines. “San Francisco built a system to serve the people, owned by the people and it was the first of its kind in America.”
During the glory days of the city’s rail service, there were some 50 streetcar lines, and eight cable car lines. Now there are just six streetcar lines left, and a trio of cable car lines.
But Laubscher said San Francisco’s once-vast web of tracks, helped spread the city West to the Ocean. “MUNI built this city,” said Laubscher.
“MUNI created neighborhoods like the Sunset District, the Parkside -- part of the Richmond.”
The MUNI system is one of the most diverse in America, with 700-thousand people taking daily trips on streetcars, cable cars, busses and light rail. Of course with that many people, and that many systems -- there are guaranteed to be hiccups, which MUNI has certainly seen its share.
“I think people have a love-hate relationship with MUNI,” said Ed Reiskin, Director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “But I think if you’re a San Franciscan, MUNI’s part of your world.
It certainly was part of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s world. As San Francisco’s mayor in the 80s, she oversaw a massive revamp of the system which had fallen into a death spiral. She helped leverage private donations to secure Federal matching funds for the project.
As she stood in the rollicking cab of Streetcar One, her memories drifted back to her childhood in San Francisco’s Marina District.
“If this is the car I think it is,” Feinstein said, “I used to ride this car when I was six and seven-years-old.”
Muni won’t actually hit the century mark until this coming December 28th. The city is cooking-up plenty of celebrations in the interim.
As Mayor Lee continued to grip the controls of Streetcar One, his handlers could only snicker at his tenacity. Even former Mayor Willie Brown ducked-out before the railcar had even hit the street. Maybe in some ways, Streetcar One is the perfect symbol of MUNI – a hint of the deep past, rolling ahead into the unknown.