It’s an odd turn of events that VIA’s $280 million Modern Streetcar project is becoming an issue in the Democratic primary fight between incumbent Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and his challenger, Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson. After all, both guys voted for it.
Adkisson has reversed course as part of his plan to unseat Wolff, who has held the office since 2001. Adkisson has declared it’s time for a change. That strikes me as political posturing from a guy who has occupied his own county commissioner’s seat since 1998 and has never indicated Precinct 4 needed a new representative.
Politics aside, it would be short-sighted for voters to let the Modern Streetcar project become an election issue. If you believe in building a better city for future generations, a city with cleaner air, a city free of downtown gridlock, a city that is bike friendly, a walkable city, a city with choices, then you should support a well-planned Modern Streetcar system as part of the solution and as an economic development catalyst.
Today, however, people remain divided. Many support it, many oppose it, and many are simply uncertain. Much of the opposition comes from the suburbs, where officials will spend $825 million on highway and toll road projects. Add to that the existing funding for Loop 1604 improvements and you have $1 billion in tax monies being invested on relieving the effects of suburban sprawl and decades of poor planning and development. Next to that, the $280 million Modern Streetcar project seems small.
The debate will only grow more heated as the primaries give way to the general campaign and November election when, presumably, Wolff will face recently-resigned District 10 City Councilman Carlton Soules, who made it his hallmark at City Hall to oppose Mayor Julián Castro’s progressive agenda while putting forward few ideas or projects of his own.
Mayor Castro is now proposing to make former San Antonio City Manager and SAWS Board Chair Alex Briseño the next chairman of VIA’s board. His proposal will undoubtedly be approved by trustees, and it will mean Mayor Castro has, in effect, taken ownership of the streetcar project. That’s good. It will take strong leadership from both City Hall, Bexar County, VIA and the private sector to see the streetcar project executed well.
Today, I don’t believe the project is quite ready. Briseño needs to keep the project on track, but at the same time, he needs to order up some fundamental rethinking and not be afraid to amend the current plan or acknowledge that too many questions have been left unanswered.
Here are 10 items for VIA Chairman-To-Be Briseño’s ‘Things to Do List’:
1. Call on Centro San Antonio and CEO Pat DiGiovanni and his staff to build a better public-private partnership for Modern Streetcars, and serve as facilitators to make sure the hard questions get asked and the project’s details get revisited. This is precisely why the City and the downtown business community created Centro. It’s uniquely suited to prove it’s worth here.
2. Appoint a Blue Ribbon Business and Community Advisory Board similar to the task force for Pre-K For SA that was co-chaired by Gen. Joe Robles, CEO of USAA, and Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B. Their involvement lent instant credibility to the initiative.
3. Ask Mayor Castro and Judge Wolff to join you in recruiting the right Advisory Board chairman, a trusted, forward-thinking leader who can make the case that continued downtown development is good for all of San Antonio. My first choice for the chairman’s seat would be Ed Whitacre, the former CEO of AT&T who also led General Motors out of failure. His book, “American Turnaround,” makes the case better than anything I can write.
4. Revisit Phase One, the North-South route. How can VIA build a North-South route that won’t take people through Southtown or on to the Missions, or heading north, to the University of Incarnate Word, and eventually, into Alamo Heights?
5. Use Centro SA and the Advisory Board to secure private sector contributions to the project. To date there hasn’t been any private sector financial support. The hesitation, I believe, is a product of concerns about the project management and whether VIA can get it right. A poorly constructed North-South route will set back center city mass transit for a decade. Before any of the city’s big names write checks, they have to believe their contributions are smart investments rather than handouts.
6. Review the project’s projected costs and funding sources. If the real sticker price is going to be higher, level now with citizens and make the case for additional funding. Don’t underfund the project. A strong case can be made that a better-funded Alamodome with more amenities would have continued to produce more big events in San Antonio than the bare bones domed stadium has delivered.
7. Develop a construction timetable and project management plan that takes into account the concerns of businesses along the route and their fears they will be hurt or even put out of business.
8. Adopt a complete streets approach along the routes that provides for cyclists and pedestrians who also need safe ways to move efficiently in and out of the downtown. How did planners get this far without taking these pieces of the puzzle into consideration?
9. Create a separate website and social media campaign to give the public 24/7 access to all relevant information, including maps, meeting times, contact information for key individuals on the project, and a forum for raising questions that get answered in a timely and open manner.
10. There’s no ballot initiative, but call on Mayor Castro to campaign, to sell the entire city on the benefits of Modern Streetcars, just as he did Pre-K 4 SA. He will need the support system in place to then properly implement the plan, just as he did when City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her team took the lead to successfully launch Pre-K. In the case of Modern Streetcars, Centro SA can prove its value.