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

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

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

Robert Rivard Headshot 250x250 (1)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.

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

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

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.

Alex Briseño

Former City Manager/SAWS Board Chair Alex Briseño

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.


Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.


Related Stories:

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

A RR Primer: VIA’s Modern Streetcar Plans

Transportation and Public Health: An Urbanist Conundrum

Out Of Town Attack on Streetcars


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

  1. I think another item to add to list is to advertise, heavily, the streetcar system in Dallas. Most San Antonians have no idea what an advanced, effective and large system Dallas has. You can go from DFW to anywhere in Dallas, even to Ft. Worth, using their commuter rail system. Not having a system here, makes us look like we are behind Dallas in this regard, which we are, and no San Antonian wants to be second fiddle to Dallas.

  2. The binary politics of the Streetcar drive me crazy. If you slightly rephrase the issue—asking, “Should San Antonio spend $280 million on imrpoving transportation in the center of the city during ‘The Decade of Downtown’?”—I think the answer is a very clear yes. No opponent to the project that I’ve heard has brought forth any alternative besides canceling the planned investment.

    As you’ve mentioned, the risk here is huge, and not getting this investment absolutely right will bring huge setbacks to the city’s ability to support the urban life of our city. There’s no way around a public vote: that will happen when we look at the ridership numbers. On the map, it means the pink Phase I has to prove successful standing entirely on it’s own.

    The fact the the one-way streets require us to invest significant track miles doubled-up so close to each other is a major drain on our ability to extend the reach of the system. Like, others, I feel it absolutely has to reach further north and further south to be successful. While I think it’s smart to avoid designing the system to be a tourist ride, it would help if tourists could augment ridership. In the current design they won’t: there’s no connection to the Convention Center, Hemisfair, the Alamo, the Alamodome, Rivercenter, etc.

    Finally, I do very much believe in rail when there’s dedicated right of way, when the trains can run on tight schedules that aren’t dependent on traffic. And while I’ve heard the arguments around prestige and permanence, I’m still not quite convinced that fixed rail will be superior enough to BRT to support it’s hefty price tag. And all this comes from a guy who hates highway investment, loves trains, and heavily uses public transportation. My fear is that this may not be the right investment to make urban, carless life in San Antonio a sooner practical reality. And like others, that’s what I so desperately want.

  3. Transportation projects in San Antonio aren’t always voted on. TXDOT is bringing managed toll to I10 and Medical Dr is being dug under Fredericksburg, I don’t recall much public debate. How were these decisions made without citizen input? 281/1604 and Bandera/410 interchanges don’t serve every citizen every day. My tax dollars go towards things I’ll never use. I don’t drive on all the roads I’ve helped pay for, I don’t have children in school. I can’t understand the opposition to the Streetcar or other mass transit rail projects.

  4. I am always happy to hear people espouse their project beliefs. For that I say “thank you” to you for your article. It’s never easy to step out into the open.
    That being sincerely offered, allow me to respond:
    Mayor Castro’s proposal to appoint Alex Briseno as the next VIA board chairman simply makes one’s head spin (almost uncontrollably). Where’s the expertise? Where’s the experience? Where’s the basic know-how? Of course, I could go on, but what’s the point? It’s just another retread placed in a position that he knows nothing about. But, I rant.
    Allow me to back off and respectively address your offered 10 “to do list” items.
    The key to your article I believe is “too many questions have been unanswered.”
    1. Centro San Antonio is not at all a bad idea conceptually. However, Pat DiGiovanni does indeed have a ways to go to repair his reputation and prove his long-term worth. You, I and many San Antonio citizens are well aware of this. In light of this basic “item to do,” Centro San Antonio is simply not in the position “to prove it’s worth here.” They have their own house to build first.
    2. Appointing an advisory board for credibility? You’re kidding, right? Pre-K for SA is modeled on a failed national (I won’t say whose) model that has failed repeatedly. Our results are yet to be seen – a bit early to point to its unqualified success, wouldn’t you agree?
    3. Appoint Ed Whitacre as the board chair? Please, let the man retire in peace. Do we really need to revisit the embarrassing national TV ad that he participated in for the automaker?
    4. What more can I add to what you’ve already said? If the North-South route is not ready for prime time, why, pray tell, are we so eager to jump off the cliff?
    5. Your comment here is self-explanatory with this comment: is this a “public” project, a “private” project, a “public/private” project or a coerced project. We need to know.
    6. I venture to guess that we all know the answer to this: the projected costs have already been dissected numerous ways. Charitably one can grant that project plans/budgets go through revisions on their way to final implementation. But in full reason, one cannot say “We’re ready to go” when the facts clearly state otherwise.
    7. I agree with your basic point, but again it’s a basic demonstration of the “cart before the horse.” Every entity along a proposed route needs to be thoroughly heard before a “plan” is put into place.
    8. I agree “how did planners get this far …?” The point is adding to a transportation system that already exists. Let’s agree, pedestrians (ala sidewalks) have been an afterthought in our town for a very long time. Cyclists too have been offered not much more than patchwork answers. However, if understood correctly, the “modern” streetcar moves down the middle of the street in a dedicated lane – oh, I don’t know, you figure it out.
    9. Social media – really?! I am all for open access (and I truly appreciate the Rivard Report), but really, “key individuals” do not have a stellar reputation on social media. Unfortunately, social media “access” is just another way for the “key individuals” to avoid the in-person questions/comments/criticisms that they need to address.
    10. “No ballot initiative”? How many times has this been put to a public vote? Oh yeah, you remember.
    Thanks so much for listening. I know I rambled for awhile, but I do appreciate your patience. Just one more question: what is a “modern” streetcar?

  5. Given that Houston street is the normal “bustling street”, one would have to walk 1/2 mile to get to the streetcar from Alamo Plaza should one want to go West. Given that they predict 1.5 million riders, (vs. 7 million in the San Francisco cable car system) this sort of thing is important. Is it just me or do the routes seem to avoid the Convention Center.

  6. I’m all for rapid transit, which the streetcar plan is NOT. As somebody who has lived in several multi-mode transportation cities, such as San Francisco, I can tell you that the streetcars are for tourists, not locals. Look at all plans proposed – the north line to Pearl is in all of them. Anybody who thinks that the streetcars are anything but the Pearl team getting visitors out to their property might pose the question to all the streetcar advocates: if the North line was replaced with more East/West expansion, would you still support it? Oh yeah, and show me how the revenue will ever justify the expense.

  7. 1) Dallas has “light rail,” not street cars. There is also commuter rail between downtown Fort Worth and downtown Dallas that I used to use a lot. I wish we had similar rail service back and forth to Austin.

    2) I’ve posted on here many times about why the San Antonio project was proposed to be twice as long as the streetcar in Seattle, but it was going to cost FOUR TIMES as much. Why would the cost per mile be double that of Seattle? For all of the fluffy talk about how this will supposedly spur economic development, nobody can answer why this would be so expensive – who is going to get rich (or richer) building this?

  8. It is impossible to think the street car system will cost “only” 280 million and used by millions of citizens. In truth, the streetcar will almost assuredly be underutilized, cost much more (think maintenance overruns), and benefit very few.

    Conversely, the tens of millions spent on streets to support “urban sprawl” is more than you give credit. The streets provide thousands of commuters means to work and elsewhere. The comparable is not exact.

    I love street car developments. when implemented correctly, they are magnificent feats of urban centers (Dallas and San Fran). However, I do not see San Antonio’s current plan efficient nor satisfactory to produce a cost/benefit ratio. In truth, the project seems a very expensive form to move people a few miles around the downtown center. We are not San Francisco, and the usage will never justify the costs.

    Maybe an extension to the north or east/west, etc or something very different is required. This project makes me nervous for our tax dollars.

  9. Interesting article. Sounds like a personal service announcement for Pat Digiovanni and Centro. Don’t get me wrong, centro provides a great service but don’t throw rocks when living in a glass house. A source has told me that pat g was the lead executive at the city that negotiated the funding agreement with via. That funding agreement went from 55 million, to 40 million, to today the city is only contributing 32 million to this project. But yet, everyone wants trees, landscaping, complete streets etc but no one wants to pay. So pat, go knock on the cities doors and prove your worth there. This city is full of fault finding and short on vision and implementation.

  10. “In Texas, light rail is a deeply countercultural idea. Natives consider the pickup truck roughly equivalent to the American flag in symbolic value, and public transportation a Kremlinesque conspiracy to undermine their way of life.”

    A great quote from a NY Times article on Austin’s fight to get light rail. It applies all to well to S.A. There is a serious culture war underlying the battle for SA Streetcars, and the truth is, if we are going to get great public transportation in this town we’ll have to fight for it.

    I agree with Rivard, city leaders need to campaign to sell the idea of the Streetcar to the city. Give people a vision, not just of streetcars, but of San Antonio’s future as Smart, Creative, and Bold. Also find reasons to build street cars that everyone can get behind: think traffic jams! Everyone hates congestion. Where would you rather be at 5 o’clock, stuck on 1604 in a sea of cars or sitting on a trolly gazing at the hustle and bustle of downtown S.A.?

    Also, it wouldn’t hurt to take a couple of hints from Austin’s playbook, as well as Dallas, as they were campaigning to sell their light rail systems to the public (yes, street cars are different from light rail, but let’s face it, the opposition is the same).

    Here are some catchy slogans which are worth repeating:


    Here’s a link to the NY Times article, which, coincidentally, offers a very interesting portrait of Austin right before the Dot.com boom and when W was still in his infant stages. As S.A. grows bigger and more sophisticated, it would be very worthwhile to start a conversation about how to learn from the failures and successes of Austin’s hyperbolic rise.


  11. Rail hurts. It displaces neighborhoods, causes blight, requires fare increases, and reduces bus service. Having been to Houston and Austin, I can attest that fact.

    Houston used to have a 24 hour bus line (Route 82 Westheimer-Sharpstown) it started Sept. 6th 2000. It ended January 21st 2002. Started before rail, ended after rail.
    I have both schedules saved!

    Bus service suffered several cutbacks due to the cost of the train which wasn’t voted on by Houston’s voters.

    Austin, before Rail, bus fare cost $1 for a day pass, 50 cents with free transfers, $10 a month for local, and $17 for Express. Had the Dillo trolleys.

    After rail, Austin’s bus fares now cost $1 for a single ride (no transfers) $2 for a daypass, $16.50 for a monthly pass for local service ONLY, for express it’s $2.75 for a single ride without a transfer, $5.50 for a daypass, and a whopping $77 for a monthly pass.


    Because they blew $372 million dollars in surplus on a choo choo.

    If you want street cars, move out of San Antonio or pay for it yourself. We San Antonians don’t want any more debt on a service that costs too much and does too little.

    I am fixing to run against Castro in 2015. And will do whatever I can to stop any rail boomdoogle that is proposed with public taxpayer money.

    VIA should focus on expanding bus service, like to the Forum in Selma,via Interlocal Agreement. Universal City and Live Oak needs bus service as well.

  12. Or… The city could not tear up the already crowded and narrow downtown streets for an indeterminate period of time; expand their existing bus service and market it to a wider clientele, not just those who can’t afford other transportation; partner with the surrounding cities and suburbs to expand bus services to the outlying communities; and put the money earmarked for this ridiculous project into creating a passenger service on the already existing rail lines between Austin and San Antonio with stops along that corridor. These suggestions would bring more tourists/visitors to SA while reducing the traffic congestion downtown; provide a transportation option for our citizens to easily travel into and out of the city as well as to Austin and SA’s suburbs. Streetcars are not a fit for SA. Looking at the cities where there are streetcars in operation, New Orleans, Seattle, Berlin Germany, they all operate on only the Widest of boulevards…not on their tiny narrow streets like our downtown. Just sayin”

  13. The programming of this plan is ludicrous. Look at the map. Who lives at either end? How many people live there??? What is the development capacity of those neighborhoods (in name only, for some)? San Antonio does not have the density nor the dis-incentive to sprawl, so where are the riders going to come from? Light rail and trollies answered a need: many pedestrians taking long walks. What is the incentive for someone who owns a car to leave it parked and pay for mass-transit? Where are the pedestrians demanding this mode of transport??? I have lived and worked in Chicago, and many of my entry level coworkers drove into downtown every day. Those that didn’t took the bus or a bike (never the L). The trolley is such a sexy idea, but is a $280M solution to a $2.8M problem: improve the walking and biking experience. Invest 1/100th of the same cost into ped and bike infrastructure and you have a chance of really seeing downtown take off. IF that takes hold, then revisit the streetcar idea.

  14. What about trolley service to the land that time forgot?
    Through the Guadalupe – Castroville technological corridor.
    Gente from the Ghost town, El Alto, and Aztlán Apache could appreciate a cleaner, quiet ride.

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