Streetcar Advocate Responds to Red McCombs

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Streetcar graphic courtesy of VIA.

Streetcar graphic by Jason Rodriguez / courtesy VIA.

[Originally published on May 10, 2014.]

Reading Red McCombs’ recent negative streetcar commentary published in the Express-News and then the subsequent revelation that the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity group have entered the streetcar fray has prompted me to reiterate my support of the VIA streetcar project.

I had the privilege of serving on the Streetcar Commission several years ago and find it incredible that there is still debate about the efficacy of this project.  After untold numbers of community meetings and input sessions, VIA was able to commendably collaborate to the fund the project.

While there was debate about the streetcar routes, this is to be expected when a starter project is limited in scope, and funding, and must take many factors into consideration.  Ultimately, practical routes were selected to connect to north, south, east and west neighborhoods including links to the Westside Multimodal Transit Center and the Robert Thompson Transit Center.

McCombs’ first question is “Why are we doing this?”

Well, anyone who has traveled south on Broadway from Hildebrand to downtown will certainly have noticed the residential, retail, office and cultural development that is occurring along that corridor and in nearby neighborhoods.  The extension of the river north is certainly a factor but so is the expectation of a modern streetcar linking these new developments to each other and to downtown.  The fixed nature of streetcars makes investment in properties more appealing.  

Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Just recently, it was reported that Austin-based Argyle Residential will be developing yet another 300 apartment units at Broadway and East Jones. And then there’s the growing congestion in the center city which streetcars will help ease with the reduction of traditional bus traffic along with the demand for more parking.  VIA’s starter streetcar system will easily connect with our large and comprehensive bus system and will also accommodate future expansions from the center city.

McCombs asks “Whom does it benefit?’

Most importantly, this is not about just accommodating the tourists.  I would be the last person to support streetcars if they were primarily targeted to the visitor industry.  The streetcar project is aimed at facilitating transportation for San Antonians.  As more residents choose to move closer to downtown, many would like to eliminate or reduce their dependence on automobiles.

Millennials, in particular, are opting for commuting options other than single occupancy vehicles, probably much to McCombs’ chagrin.  Streetcars are an efficient and attractive means of connecting close-in neighborhoods and downtown.  If tourists use the streetcars that will just further enhance revenue for local businesses and ease congestion of additional automobiles in the core.

McCombs’ final question is “Given the enormous costs, are there not other more important needs?”

My question is: “Why isn’t a state-of-the-art inner city streetcar system one of the most important needs in a growing, urban city?”

Yes, the initial investment is substantial but nothing like the cost of light rail. Streetcars are a clean technology, cost less to operate while carrying three times as many riders as buses, and streetcar vehicles last 30 years versus 10 years for buses. Downtown streets can’t be widened and parking garages in the center city are very expensive to construct.  Streetcars will reduce regular bus traffic and provide an alternative to the automobile.  And, yes, there will be disruption during construction but that is the case with any infrastructure project and that hasn’t stopped us from continuing to invest in highway and street projects throughout the city.

Finally, we should be highly suspicious of outside forces such as the Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity jumping onto the anti-streetcar bandwagon.  They are not acting in the best interests of our city but are looking for a political issue they can use against Mayor Castro and County Judge Wolff.  Just like the San Antonio Firefighters Association joining forces with the San Antonio Tea Party to rally against the streetcar, these disparate groups have their own special interests that have nothing to do with the public transportation needs of San Antonio.

Please think twice about signing their petitions that would essentially prohibit streetcars or just about anything else requiring the use of  “…any street, highway, alley, park, public place of any other real property of the city … unless expressly approved by a majority vote of the qualified electors of the city in an election distinctly specifying such purpose separate from any other subject or purpose.”

Really?  Since when do we vote on individual infrastructure projects?

Let your support for streetcars be heard by our elected officials.  Encourage your neighbors to learn more and to not sign these misguided petitions.  As the heart of the city grows stronger, benefits will accrue to the entire city through increased tax revenues to help support all of San Antonio.

 *Featured/top image: Streetcar graphic by Jason Rodriguez / VIA.

Related Stories:

10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars

Streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit Will Speed San Antonio’s Transformation

San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System

 The Case for the Chavez Streetcar Route

Take Your Pick: The Latest Alternative Streetcar Routes

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

40 thoughts on “Streetcar Advocate Responds to Red McCombs

  1. I vote for Gondolas! You can run lines up over buildings and use several structures as supports. Set up entry/exit points along several points of interest and setup free standing piers for support (like the ones holding up the train towards the end of the Batman Begins movie) for congested areas. Participate in revenue sharing model with local business to use their structures for support.

    There you go. We have a plan. Houston, the mission is a go.

  2. Are the busses overfull in this area, showing a greater demand for mass transit? Someone – maybe a news agency who is reporting instead of advocating – could easily check the frequency of busses and number of passengers on this route. A need would show as too many passengers or full capacity

    • While I don’t entirely disagree, I think it’s important to note that many people avoid busses. I am not sure why, but it’s been looked at in many other cities. People don’t seem like to ride busses, so while number of bus passengers is important it may not give an accurate picture of would be riders. I’d personally would be happy to see less busses on the street.

  3. I’m down, we should also look at the LA County model and consider how we can connect outlier cities such as Boerne, New Braunfels, Seguin, and eventually a connection to Austin. There is no excuse for Texas to be so regressive on public transportation, especially given the continued growth of what is called the Texas triangle. Right now, light rail is a good investment and will only help provide momentum for growth in high speed rail. Texas cities are behind in decades when it comes to public transit.

    • John, you make a good point that light rail would make more sense for San Antonio than this isolated project. I have spoken and written several times about this project and the fact it is out of sync with successful rail projects across the country. Just Friday I compared this project to the most successful streetcar project in the nation and highlighted why this is out of sync.

      While I respect Rebecca on many levels (isn’t that how Ed addressed Red in their dueling op-eds?), I disagree with her on several points. I don’t think it’s worth a blog entry outlining the differences (maybe it is), but here are a few.
      – Regarding starter project, it may be considered that, but as I’ve point out several times with reasons, it will also be the last major capital project of VIA for a decade or two. Is this really how we solve our long-term transit needs of a growing county?
      – Regarding “Why isn’t a state-of-the-art inner city streetcar system one of the most important needs in a growing, urban city?” It is, but only after creating viable transit routes connecting outer areas of the into the urban core. Every major city that has been successful started with the connecting transit routes such as light rail or BRT. Portland, Dallas, Austin.

      Streetcar is a later project in major transit systems, not the starter project. Tampa is a good example of how we are attempting streetcar and what our system will probably result in – failure.

      Regarding AFP’s involvement, it is primarily BECAUSE the public has been excluded from the decisions on a quarter of a billion dollars of their money. VIA’s bracketing move was the straw that broke the camel’s back with me. Yes, VIA. You outlawyered the citizens using bracketing language intended for Austin and Houston. VIA has no more public trust.

      Here is my blog entry on the Portland comparison with facts, not rhetoric.
      http://www.bexarleftandright.com/2014/05/09/why-streetcars-work-in-portland-but-not-in-san-antonio/

  4. So Jorge, are we to disregard all the other citizens of the city and county just so the “millennials” get a cool expensive toy downtown? Forget long-term transit needs. Let’s make sure the “cool kids” have some fun things to ride on. What I’ve discovered talking to millennials in the Broadway area (1221 and Dignowity Hill) are that they would prefer light rail over streetcar, but they don’t get a choice on this.

    • Um, yeah. We’ll just ignore all the billions we wasted on sprawl already, and throw some more good money after bad doing exactly the same thing so as to not “disregard all the other citizens of the city and county.” Definition of insanity.

      When are you going to figure out that living in a dysfunctional sprawl belt is a choice? It is a choice to free ride on infrastructure that was subsidized by others. And now we “others” are telling you to GFY because we have realized that your lifestyle and your choice is dysfunctional and has no future, and we are not interested in subsidizing your property value any more. Get that? I’m sure you do, and that is why your “progressive” solution is a gravy train running in one direction – out to you – instead of a streetcar that works for people in the city.

      The only reason Red McCombs is mad is because the streetcar doesn’t benefit him. If he had property along the route, or if it extended up to his overpriced p.o.s. at Broadway and Hildebrand, he would be all for it. Both you and Red want the same “red” solution: use the government to keep diverting subsidies to YOU to enhance YOUR property values. But there comes a point where the rest of us see YOU as a diminishing return and decide to cut our losses, and that is exactly what is occurring with the current political realignment in this city and the political isolation of the sprawl-addicts in the outlying areas.

      • LOL, I guess anything outside of the urban core is sprawl to you. Based on your comment, that seems to be the case. Hmmm, time for you to do a little more research on the matter, which apparently you haven’t.

        What I’ve suggested on many occasions is to develop the Center City out to Loop 410 with good transit and possibly extend to 1604. That’s what progressive cities like Portland, Dallas, Denver, Seattle, and countless others who have real transit solutions do. I also advocate improving the infrastructure within 410 to build areas of the city that seem to be overlooked at the expense of folks like yourself who want a lot of subsidy for your playground.

        No, it’s really you who don’t seem to be looking at our city holistically and just seem to want to build out some fantasyland at taxpayer expense in terms of subsidy, incentive, and an isolated limited tourist attraction called a streetcar.

        You might go look at some articles on streetcars in other cities. You’ll find they have been coming in at double the cost (those are real solutions being built now by established transit agencies) with lower ridership numbers than originally projected.

  5. Pretty good article overall. I still don’t know what I think about the streetcar plan. It does concern me that funding to extend the “starter system” will be hard to come by if this gets implemented. I know I would much rather have light rail that goes to the airport or USAA (even though I’m lucky enough to be moving to the downtown office) but it doesn’t seem like that is feasible at this time. BRT would be a great option in my opinion too.

  6. So Randy Bear do you think that all the funding sources being put together and political capital for the streetcar would still be available for a BRT based solution? That the real reason I’m pretty on the fence about whether or not I support streetcar.

  7. Actually no. VIA’s arrogance on this and tight budgets have diminished their ability to cobble together another major project. They are also going to try to finish this one also. So that may be the target of their funding.

  8. What VIA really lacks is a true timeline of projects. Everything seems to be politically driven. In Austin you have a pretty good timeline. Other cities also. I’d be surprised if you can find one with VIA. That should be an indicator of their ability to execute a long-term plan.

  9. A streetcar makes sense to me. People expect to be able to get from one place to another without having to drive. We need to keep up with other U.S. cities by offering more transportation options.

  10. A streetcar seems like a step backwards in time to me. Having come from New England and lived in DC, Boston, NYC, I just don’t see the need. Cities out west were built for the car and the single-family home unlike European cities and older US cities. What would be forward thinking, especially as we seek to attract millennials and tech companies to our great city, would be a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system connecting the outlying universities to downtown, attractions, event facilities, airport and any other brandable destination area like the Pearl, N. St Mary’s, Quarry, the Rim, etc. The reality is that at $10-$22 million (on the high side) per mile, it kills the $83 million per mile, congestion, and construction nightmare that is the streetcar project. Honestly, we are building the city of the future here in San Antonio. Time to stop trying to fit in and be like other cities and time to start charting our own path as trendsetters. We need to think BIG!

    • They look weird but it looks like a pretty interesting system. I think we’re at least a decade away from something viable here in SA.

      • San Antonio is one of the top tourist destinations. I think they would like it. Especially running between Alamo Plaza and Market Square. I would even like that!!!

        • Steve:

          The article states that the system is intended for locals but the value and attractiveness to tourists cannot be underestimated. Streetcars enhance the tourist experience and that can help enhance the image of San Antonio. Transportations systems are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason why a combination of streetcars and personal rapid transit cannot be strategically implemented to provide the best coverage.

          There appear to be “camps” of opinion on this issue perhaps affiliated with political persuasion. Although, this is really should not be a partisan issue. Leadership that has the ability to bring the sides together on this and formulate a viable plan need step forward.

          • Ed, I find your last point pretty insulting actually. If you examined the comments more closely I would invite you to find partisan aspects to the comments. The fact you suggested that seems to hint at possible partisan implications. In fact, you seem to be the only one to bring up political preference in the discussion.

            To that point, if you knew me you’d find I’m more a progressive who endorsed Judge Wolff in the last election. I support Mayor Castro on many issues. That being said, I do not support this project as it stands because of the many reasons I’ve stated already. Both of them know that and understand my position. This is not a partisan issue. It’s a matter of transit priorities.

            We do agree on one point. Leadership is desperately needed, not to push an agenda, but to understand the issues from all sides.

          • Nope! I called attention to political sides earlier. There are two camps – Conservatives vs Progressives (Democrats, Liberals, etc.). The author even called attention to the Americans for Prosperity and the Tea Party.

  11. Thank you! Thank you, Rebecca for a great summary of the reasons for streetcars to respond to McCombs! The only thing I would add is the comment recently in the Express News about big cities: all have some form of streetcar. E.g. Washington D.C. When I was at a convention at Catholic University it was easy to jump on the subway and visit the mall and soldiers memorial

    • Jim, maybe you should do some research on DC’s transit system. First of all, you used the subway, which is not streetcar. DC is implementing a streetcar system, but it has yet to come online. In fact, this recent article in the Washington Post talks about the long delays implement their streetcar system.

      Secondly, DC’s situation is not comparable to San Antonio’s. Streetcars are intended to augment a regional transit solution like Metro and not come before them. For a streetcar system, which is typically an urban core solution designed to augment a larger transit system, to be successful it needs the larger solution to feed riders to it.

      So, the reasoning provided by Rebecca doesn’t equate to the situation you experienced in DC. Right now we are putting the cart before the horse. Read through several of the comments on this subject and you’ll see a deeper conversation on the issues. This is a very expensive solution that does not address our city’s transit problems. Those problems take greater precedence over allowing you to ride the system from landmark to landmark.

      • “Those problems take greater precedence over allowing you to ride the system from landmark to landmark.”

        Precedence only in your own mind, legend. You would hold the streetcar hostage until we agree to spend billions building a regional system out to you. Not going to happen. You call yourself a progressive but are so quick to employ the teabagger mentality to hold the government hostage when you don’t get what you want.

        • Actually I hold a progressive attitude at actually solving transit problems for the CITY, not an isolated area of that city. BTW, using derogatory labels doesn’t help your credibility much in terms of actually having discussion. I’ll just write you off as one of the typical extremists who can’t seem to hold a rational conversation on issues.

          BTW, reading your comment I find so many contradictions I don’t think you really have a rational point here. I’m looking for more progressive transit solutions which you have quickly written off. So who’s really holding who hostage? I guess you really don’t have good solutions for dealing with the transit needs of the city and don’t really do the research on solutions. Just a bunch of rhetoric without reality.

          • Hardly. In fact, I’ve written on this topic extensively in other forums, as well as here. Funny thing is all you offer is a jab without any substance. I’ll leave it at that, unless you have something to contribute to the conversation.

            Our city is full of people throwing a bunch of rhetorical promises around and seem to live off a shallow phrase of “city on the rise.” Neat phrase, but there’s really not a lot behind it except a bunch of listings in top 10 lists which are usually subjective.

  12. BTW Garl, as I read your jab, I’m curious what your thoughts are on this, other than “as long as it’s on rails, it’s good.” Based on reading your background, you spent a lot of time with freight and passenger rail and seem to have spent some time with DART. As you should know, DART started with a light rail system that spread throughout the Dallas area BEFORE considering the Oak Cliff streetcar system. In other words, and you as a transportation advocate should know, successful streetcar systems (e.g. Portland, Dallas, DC, Denver) start with successful light rail systems then deal with augmenting service with a streetcar. Did I miss something? Can you provide evidence of several successful streetcar systems that preceded light rail?

    Yep, a little reality here, not rhetoric. Looking forward to your response.

  13. It strikes me as odd that in a time where cities with drastically higher density than anywhere in TX are struggling to fund their existing public transit– including street car lines– cities like Dallas, San Antonio and Austin seem dead set on going down the same path.

    Each time service is cut and fares are raised in cities like Boston and NY there is a great uproar and gnashing of teeth.

    Meanwhile, TX cities seem intent on making the worst of choices in public transit– the streetcar. Sold on a promise of reducing traffic they do the opposite while being a giant black hole of tax dollars.

    A trackless trolley(Electric bus operating on a catenary line) can accomplish all of the benefits at a hugely lower cost to build. They don’t impede traffic. Vehicles can get around them if they break down. There are no tracks for bicycles to get caught in. Streetcar tracks are frequently the cause of death and serious injury for cyclists.

    The same trackless trolleys operated for over 30 years in the Boston area before they updated them in 2004.

    50 years ago the streetcar lines were all paved over. Now we dig them up and put new ones in at the cost of 100s of millions a mile?

  14. Well said! Americans are in the process of becoming an oligarchy ruled by billionaires. Stand up for the people, and against the dirty money of the Koch brothers and fix San Antonio!

  15. Thanks, Joy. Not only Koch brothers, but others who live in the far suburbs (as I read recently in the Express News) and whose experience is very different from people who live within the inside city. I realize San Antonio inner city is still emerging, but I support the vision of a vibrant inner city, where people can walk or cycle to places–or take a streetcar!

  16. The proposed $280m to build / $4m-to-$8m annually to operate (even with planned fares) streetcar system as mapped above would have served less than a 2mi radius and cost more to build and operate than some fare-free downtown elevated monorail systems in the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metromover). It was biased towards new development on Broadway when that area could have been served and costs reduced by moving the proposed streetcar line a block east to Alamo St. or west to Aves B and/or A (re-connected north-south) – separating the streetcar service from heavier traffic and possibly allowing stretches of the streetcar line to be completely pedestrianized or at least traffic-limited.

    The streetcar planners also disregarded core transit riders just west, east and north of downtown. The planned Martin St. / Frio St. streetcar loop could have been extended another mile west to Zarzamora, looping to downtown via Commerce St – helping to serve one the city’s busiest public transit corridors, adding an HEB to the downtown streetcar network and supporting W. Commerce St. pedestrian improvements. In addition, SAC/San Pedro Park, N. St Mary’s as well as The Pearl could have been served with a loop north along San Pedro, Dewey & Josephine. Similarly, another north-south streetcar line could have been planned along Pine St. or New Braunfels from the planned Cesar Chavez route on the East Side to support residents and efforts there and make the overall streetcar network more circular and efficient.

    VIA’s free downtown entertainment trolley/bus mirrors much of the phase 1 streetcar line as planned and will cost just $100k to operate for six months, 5 days a week, six hours a day. Why not have VIA run the entire streetcar route as planned or suggested here (expanded east, west and north) as a fare-free trolley service 7 days a week, 18 hours a day for 6 months and see how we go (<$5m)? Possibly, Red McCombs could provide advertising sponsorship to help pay for such a trial project utilizing trolleys or buses, including possible upgrades to e-vehicles for the route?

    http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/VIA-s-free-downtown-shuttle-premieres-this-month-6126386.php

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