Another Turn of the Wheel for VIA’s Proposed Streetcar Project

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Bekah S. McNeelIn case you missed the meeting, the big streetcar debate was not settled last night. Big issues – especially contentious ones – don’t often get settled at public hearings, which are intended more to give members of the public the opportunity to speak face-to-face with decision-makers.

As was the case Monday night at the most recent VIA public meeting for feedback on proposed modern streetcar routes held at the Tri-Point YMCA on North St. Mary’s Street.

Citizens in opposition to the streetcar project handed out informational sheets amid procedural instructions for getting one’s name on the docket to speak. Several alternative venues were also offered for feedback in case speaking in front of the crowd wasn’t one’s thing.

The modern streetcar project is currently in the “Alternatives Analysis” phase, which means that the subject up for discussion at the public meeting was the proposed routes for the modern streetcars, as well as the project on the whole.

At past meetings, citizens were asked to propose a north-south and east-west axis for the streetcar system. Six alternatives have emerged. Each includes some combination of routing along either Alamo or St. Mary’s Streets as a north-south axis, and either Martin/Pecan, Nueva, or Cesar Chavez Boulevard as the east-west axis.

VIA Modern Streetcar routes were on display for public consideration.

VIA Modern Streetcar routes on display for public consideration.

Brian Buchanan, VIA’s chief development officer, presented the alternatives, as well as a summary of public feedback so far. Most concerns regard proposed routing through Hemisfair Park and Alamo Plaza, and coordination with other transit and current capital improvement projects. Some concern was also expressed that fares would increase to cover expenses. Some proposed routes could cost up to $272 million, while VIA has about $210 million to spend.

Buchanan said that the project has general support in the community.

After he spoke, the floor was opened to speakers allotted three minutes each to address the VIA board of directors. A person could win a nine-minute slot if two others gifted their time and the speaker represented a group.

Stan Mitchell, speaking first, claimed to be speaking on behalf of “the taxpayers.” He thanked the VIA board for the opportunity to provide “supplemental” information to that provided by VIA. He cited a well-known report by Randall O’Toole, which caused quite a stir surrounding the November streetcar meetings. Literature based on O’Toole’s anti-streetcar report was passed out last night by project opponents.

Mitchell went on to suggest that VIA had committed “fraud by omission” and had “hidden the cost.” His said the manner in which City of San Antonio and VIA officials operate reflect the “hallmarks of tyranny.”

“An iron fist in a velvet glove of environmental idealism is still an iron fist,” Mitchell said.

Stan Mitchell addresses the VIA board of directors.

Stan Mitchell addresses the VIA board of directors.

Mitchell set the tone for others “representing taxpayers.” District 8 was specifically represented by one Richard Slife of the South Texas Alliance for Progress, who produced one of the other handouts available to attendees. Much of the resistance to the streetcar proposal is based on projections it will cost the taxpayers more than VIA officials are estimating.

“San Antonio cannot afford the cost of owning and operating a streetcar,” said Slife.

Slife projected a nearly $19 million dollar deficit at the end of the first year of the streetcar’s life, and told the board, “it’s time you ‘fess up,” with regard to the costs of running the streetcar.

Lawrence Stovall also spoke out against the project, and said the streetcar budget has ballooned 45% even before the first track is laid. He added on an even bigger charge, saying VIA board members “allowed the county commissioners to launder $92 million of ATD taxes through TxDot.”

Speakers at public hearings often make assertions unsupported by any facts or evidence.

Stovall disagreed with those who say streetcars will spur economic development: “Since when is VIA in charge of San Antonio’s economic development?”

The project had its supporters last night, too.

Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told board members, “Great cities invest in themselves.” He applauded the Long Range Comprehensive Transportation Plan (LRCTP), saying it promoted livability and sustainability and would spur development.

Ralph Voight, director of visitor services at the Witte Museum, spoke in favor of the streetcars on behalf of the Broadway Reach Consortium, the businesses and cultural institutions whose connectivity he aid will be significantly enhanced by a streetcar carrying visitors to and from other cultural institutions downtown.

Several bus riders told board members the money would be better spent upgrading existing bus service in the city. Other community members lobbied for or against specific routing for the modern streetcar project.

The public debate over streetcars seems to be following a predictable course. VIA will issue a response to the issues raised in the meeting in a statement due 30 days from June 17.

 

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

 

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