Nirenberg Calls For Light Rail Debate, Inclusion in 2017 Bond

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Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) questions the panelists about how they see San Antonio developing in reaction to projects that Bexar County will attract one million additional residents by 2040. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) delivers his state of the district address." Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

San Antonians have only begun to feel the pangs of traffic congestion, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said Saturday, and one of the ways to relieve the existing and future intensity of the problem is light rail.

Nirenberg told a crowd of about 150 District 8 residents, neighbors, and city leaders gathered at the Phil Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center for his State of the District address, that his top funding priority for the fast-approaching 2017-2022 Bond Program will be securing a “down payment” for future rail projects in San Antonio.

“We need a rail debate. We need a rail vote. And we need it next May,” he said, to unanimous applause.

The list of high-dollar improvement projects on the $750 million municipal bond will ultimately be decided on by voters during the bond election in May 2017. Light rail supporters might have an uphill battle to convince the public to divorce the concept of light rail from the failed streetcar attempt in 2014.

Read more: Urban Literacy: What is a Municipal Bond?

But what Nirenberg envisions for light rail in San Antonio, to connect population and service hubs across the city, is something completely different from the streetcar, which essentially became a downtown circulator.

“If we’re going to be investing $750 million or more in the future of San Antonio, the number one issue – in the Northside, Southside, Eastside, and Westside – is transportation,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report after his speech. “We simply can’t just put more busses on already congested streets, we’ve got to leverage a new transit system … we’ve got to invest in a fixed route between these high density corridors.”

The streetcar debate, which attracted special interest groups, from the Tea Party to the firefighters union to out-of-town conservative think tanks, led to the passing of a City Charter amendment in the May 2015 election that requires a public vote on all rail projects involving the City.

One of the fatal flaws of the street project, said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), was that voters who live and work outside of Loop 410 didn’t see the value in a downtown circulator. It wasn’t for them.

“They would care about rail between the airport and downtown,” he said, an idea that resonated with many audience members. “But we need to be strategic in how we start to propose these things.”

Kevin Wolff, Bexar County Commissioner, questions where the money will come from the build a light rail from San Antonio to Austin. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) questions where the money will come for a commuter rail project connecting San Antonio to Austin. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Wolff joined VIA Metropolitan Transit CEO Jeff Arndt, City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability Director Doug Melnick, and Tech Bloc Executive Director Marina Gavito on a lively panel discussion about the future of transportation in San Antonio before Nirenberg’s address.

Project location, scope and price will need to be debated and discussed after the Multimodal Transportation Plan is finalized and released this spring, Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg is a tri-chair of SA Tomorrow, the City’s three-pronged comprehensive planning effort to anticipate the impacts of an estimated city population growth of 1 million by 2040. Public input meetings have been held for months (and continue) to inform the comprehensive, sustainability, and multimodal plans. He said his call for light rail will be backed up by the Multimodal Plan.

“It absolutely is,” he said. “And that’s what the plan is for – to guide the City’s funding and policy priorities. … The bond program needs to nod to that (vision).”

Wolff questioned if the public is truly ready to make major investments into a shift away from capacity-building projects for cars towards the big-ticket items like light rail, bus rapid transit and establishing a more robust network of bike lanes.

“We as a community are in what I would call a transition. We haven’t quite reached our threshold of pain,” he said, because in comparison to other major cities, San Antonio has relatively few problem traffic areas. “It’s going to be very hard to make those changes until we reach that threshold.”

But to be fair, Nirenberg said, on Wurzbach Parkway, one of the more congested rush-hour thoroughfares, “that threshold of pain has already arrived.”

Capacity projects are still needed and included on his list of priorities for District 8, he said during his address.

“Within 25 years, we will have an additional 1 million people living in our city. That’s another 500,000 vehicles, another 500,000 housing units, another 500,000 jobs. Data shows that our commute times will increase by 75 %,” he said. “If we don’t plan our resources accordingly, and instead do to the same things we’ve always done while expecting different results, by definition, that’s insanity. It would be a failure of leadership.”

The alternatives to driving yourself need to be reliable, frequent, and competitive to car travel time in order for people to start seriously considering mass transit, Arndt added.

“We are baking a cake,” Arndt said of VIA’s long-term planning. “A carrot cake.”

The actual cake is the fundamental bus system, the icing is rapid transit – which could include rail, and on top is technology: rideshare, bike share, and mobile applications like Ride Scout, which analyzes all available transportation options for any given trip for users to choose from.

“If I could give up my car today, I absolutely would,” said Gavito, who showed Arndt the Ride Scout app, but the alternatives aren’t time or cost effective enough. “To attract the new generation of workers, transportation is critically important … these people look for things like walkability and multimodal transportation.”

Melnick pointed out that busses and light rail can’t go everywhere. The pedestrian and cycling elements need to be improved to improve that “last mile” of transportation once a commuter or visitor steps off the bus.

“It’s all about an inter-connected system,” he said. “We need a plan to make changes now so we don’t have to react (to a problem) at the end of the day.”

Light rail doesn’t solve the entire transportation puzzle, the panelists agreed. And one of the biggest challenges is an all-too-common one. Funding.

“We’ve got to start with the ideal and work back to the real,” Wolff said. “Revenue is the biggest problem of transportation.”

VIA is funded through a half-cent sales tax that is capped by the state.

“We are the least-funded transit property in the state,” Arndt said.

A City committee was formed last year after Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) proposed transferring some of the City’s Advanced Transportation District funds, funded by a quarter-cent tax, to VIA to purchase more buses to reduce wait times at bus stops. VIA already takes half of the ATD funding, the City takes a quarter and TxDOT takes the remaining quarter. The City uses its share for sidewalk/intersection improvements, traffic signals and other smaller-scale infrastructure projects.

The Advanced Transportation District Ad Hoc Committee met for the first time last week to consider giving up the City’s share and explore other funding options.

“We’ve spent 65 years building a very robust highway system — we haven’t spent any significant money building high capacity transit system,” Arndt said of the seemingly daunting numbers needed to expand mass transit options.

The most daunting price tags has been that of the almost two decade old, $2.5-4 billion Lone Star Rail proposal that would connect San Antonio and Austin via light rail. It’s a project that is now seen by many as unfeasible after Union Pacific withdrew from consideration of the passenger cars sharing its freight line that follows Interstate 35.

“Lone Star Rail is not viable in its current form,” Wolff said. “That doesn’t mean the idea of rail between austin and San Antonio is dead.”

Tech Bloc, which advocates for the local technology industry, threw its support behind Lone Star Rail, Gavito said. “(Lone Star) is fizzling out, but a reboot is needed. … we needed it to happen yesterday.”

The City committed $500,000 towards initial staffing and consultant work for the Lone Star Rail District. Nirenberg has the impression that the money will still be allocated for planning, but City Council will be briefed on the matter soon.

Local rail should be a relatively easy sell to voters, he said.

“If we consider our current and future resources, and we are hearing what residents are saying, they want a comprehensive system with the option of local commuter rail,” Nirenberg said. “They want local rail because in 2016, it makes sense if it’s done right.”


*Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) questions the panelists about how they see San Antonio’s transportation systems accommodating a massive increase in population.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Related Stories:

Nirenberg: Bold Action Needed on Rail, Water, & Ethics

Lone Star Rail Briefing Postponed Until 2016

Rideshare and Lone Star Rail Courting City Council

City Council Rescinds Streetcar Funds, Approves Charter Review Commission

Why San Antonio’s Streetcar Project Ran Off the Rails

  • In the abstract, this sounds great. In practice, it’s an expensive and impractical form of transportation.

    The complexity and unpredictability of our daily lives renders this type of transportation only marginally useful, at best. If you are single with no kids and have an extremely work schedule with little to no day to day variation, this MIGHT work for you. For the millions of others who don’t have that regularity , this will be an answer to a question very few are asking.

    Light rail is simply not conducive to after-school kid activities, taking elderly parents to doctors’ appointments, or numerous other unexpected happenings that make life so unpredictable (household repairman visits, a carpool participant who suddenly drops out because his/her kid is sick, an accelerated deadline on a work project, etc.).

    Finally, while downtown is full of excitement secondary to redevelopment efforts, it comprises a fraction of the overall live/work commute. Many live and work close to where they live be that the east side, west side, south or north side.

    When this project is anaylzed using cost versus benefits, I suspect it will become clear that we should use the money to fix our streets and repair sidewalks so that kids can walk to school in safety instead of using it to build a fancy transportation system that history has already taught us few will use.

    • Luddite

      Morgan, I was going to refute several of your fallacious claims about light rail, but after briefly checking your public Facebook profile, I highly doubt it would be worth the effort. Have a good day.

  • So needed

  • How many times do we have to say “no”?

  • Well we need something to get people around. Via doesn’t do it. There is no reason why people do not have adequate transportation for night life when most major cities do.

  • Rogelio Jimenez

    In order to get voter approval, proponents of this plan would have to produce a map of current commute times throughout the city. For example; average time it takes to drive from downtown to Fiesta Texas in a vehicle, then super impose that with ‘definite,’ time it takes riding in commuter rail. Make these maps readily available by placing them in the various forms of media, make then a permanent fixture on one edge (inset) of each media outlet. Sooner, rather then later the public will be all for this project. This will mean more time families can spend with each other, rather then waiting in traffic. Less commute expenses and aggravation. When folks from out of town see how easy it is to get from home to work, compared to their city, it will be an advantage over the other major metropolitan cities around the country.

    This article states a small amount (quarter cent), that could be used for funding. The question is what other type of funding can the city garner in order to pay for this? It is not clear what power the local officials have to further fund this project. If a quarter cent is all that would be needed to fund it, then proposing a one cent increase could easily pass. The time for talk is over, action is needed in order to remain ahead upcoming traffic crisis.

  • We need rail. Would much prefer that to driving. People who don’t get that have never had the experience of using this form of transit. I have lived in Texas all my life, but have always used mass transit in my extensive travels. It is great! Gotta start somewhere.

  • Art

    This is great! Glad to see someone bring up this key issue again. Major arteries such as Fredricksburg rd, San Pedro ave, Broadway, Nogalitos st, Roosevelt ave, and even Commerce st would be great to redevelop and create a transportation system that is truly multimodal.

  • I took advantage of the light rail system in Phoenix just a few months after it started, and I thought it was great,

  • Nirenburg probably thinks talking up Light Rail will help propel him to higher office. However, his actual actions and those of the rest of his fellow Council members scream the truth about Light Rail. It is a failed concept who’s time passed two decades ago. Every Bexar County politician now in office knows that. Both Bexar County and City Council have relentlessly subsidized job creation out I-10 and around 1604. Those areas can never economically be served by light rail or anything else. Any sitting Politician trying to change the tax break gift system will be out of office in a hurry. So what light rail really offers is an opportunity to both tear up the Downtown for years, install a single line from airport to the Alamo and then subsidize it for 30 years or more. Great idea! When you see City Council cease giving tax breaks or other costly help except for job creation inside loop 410 there might be something to talk about. Otherwise, there are no downtown traffic congestion issues that cannot be handled by VIA busses at a tiny fraction of the cost of Light Rail.

    • M

      Terry–as someone who has been present at the city’s meetings with potential job creators, they relentlessly push the “downtown” narrative on these companies. They just don’t do it successfully

    • gblatham

      “…there are no downtown traffic congestion issues that cannot be handled by VIA busses [sic] at a tiny fraction of the cost of Light Rail.”

      That is an incorrect statement. A fair application of empirical data refutes the writer’s assertion.

      The initial costs of infrastructure are greater with rail-based transport, simply because it is safely presumed that buses will operate upon the same network of roads already built and maintained for automobile traffic.

      That being said, the life expectancy of railway systems over roadways and railway vehicles over buses is profoundly greater, with a ratio of at least 3:1 typical. In addition, the number of passengers per vehicle and passengers per operating employee are much higher on Light Rail Transit than on buses, where average ratios of approximately 4:1 are easily achieved (and 12:1 or greater can often occur during rush hours, depending upon an individual train’s consist).

      And we haven’t even begun to address issues like passenger comfort, ease of use and marketability – all of which tend to increase ridership of rail-based systems over bus routes along identical corridors.

      The citizens of San Antonio would do well to question the ‘sound bite’ attacks of anti-rail ideologues.

      Ultimately, the question is simple: in what sort of city do we wish to live?!

  • M

    “One of the fatal flaws of the street project, said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), was that voters who live and work outside of Loop 410 didn’t see the value in a downtown circulator. ”

    I have never, and probably will never, use Loop 410 to get to Highway 90–but my tax dollars are paying for that $180 MILLION expansion. Why is there so much more scrutiny on a rail project that will reduce sprawl, increase efficiency and give San Antonians OPTIONS for how they choose to commute? This is an investment we would be wise to make now.

  • cost 1/3 of the water project vista ridge and 1/3 of the krier regional airport…..will save water and reduce traffic

  • gblatham

    “Light rail doesn’t solve the entire transportation puzzle, the panelists agreed.”

    Well, bully for them!

    Of course, no one has ever claimed a rail-based passenger transport initiative would be a panacea, but what value is a red herring if you don’t take advantage of it?!

  • gblatham

    By the way:

    Just for the record, the existing Lone Star Rail plan (“LStar”) does not propose the use of light rail technology for its service.

    Silly little point, but it does seem to matter!

  • ProgTexas

    If those of you who say light rail does not work, then why does it work in other cities. Take a look at San Diego’s metro rail and public transportation. It is great! When I visit I use it all the time. It is a vast and important means of how people get around no matter where someone needs to go. San Antonio has remained and underprivileged city because everything is in the north side. Things are finally coming to other areas such as the west, east and south side. Our city should be connected and people should have a means of getting around. A student who lives on the south side should be able to catch a ride on the metro line to UTSA on the north side. A student on the north side should be able to do the same thing to get to A&M-SA.