It’s doubtful that any minds were changed during the Wednesday evening town hall meeting on the topic of streetcars. Held at UTSA's downtown campus, the discussion turned out to be raucous entertainment for those who weren’t too emotionally involved. Overall, the event turned out to be balanced well, with a group a panelists who essentially agreed to disagree, and an audience adequately represented by attendees for and against the issue.
The discussion was moderated by Francine Romero, Associate Dean of UTSA’s College of Public Policy. The panelists were SA2020 President and CEO Darryl Byrd, public policy analyst Jeff Judson, VIA Board Chairman Alex Briseño, and UTSA public administration professor Heywood Sanders. The event was sponsored by the San Antonio Express-News and UTSA.
Romero quickly set the tone by outlining the topic’s background and then asking the panelists two questions, rather than having them state their positions. Following that, the floor was opened to questions. At the outset, she indicated her determination to keep things moving along, and for the most part, she did a fine job of achieving that goal.
As the first one to speak, Sanders set his tone by indicating that he was “neither for nor against” streetcars, but asked, “What are the goals we are trying to get?” Although Briseño was quick to point out that more than 200 public meetings had been held to discuss the project, Sanders countered this by noting that the meetings were not broad enough in their focus, and that the streetcar concept was basically set before the public input process even started.
Briseño indicated that the streetcar system was intended to be part of a larger multi-modal plan. He quickly went on the offensive by stating others were tangling up the project in other issues. As examples, he cited Americans for Prosperity, Republicans vs. Democrats, and the Firefighters Union using the issue as a political football. Furthermore, he pointed out the costs of recent freeway interchange projects, as well as the U.S. 281 expansion north of Loop 1604.
Judson, well-known in the community as a vocal opponent of streetcars, tried to inject a note of irony by stating that the streetcar project “will fail because it’s not expensive enough.” But his plain talk shone through when he said that “this is a really stupid idea,” receiving applause from the anti-streetcar contingent.
Holding up a copy of a 25-page Heartland Institute position paper called “The Streetcar Fantasy”, Judson pointed out that he is from the think-tank world. The problem with reports like these, however, is that they completely lack balance by indicating everything that is wrong, but ignoring what could be right.
He went on to state that the same goals could be accomplished in a much more cost-effective manner. His alternative centered on Bus Rapid Transit, holding up a concept photo of an articulated bus on dedicated tracks in Eugene, Oregon.
Byrd struck an intellectual note by stating, “We’re all complicated people dealing with a complicated issue.” And perhaps in a nod to older members of the audience, his remarks often centered on the fact that millennials favor transportation alternatives in which the car is low on the list of choices. He repeatedly indicated that these are the people who will be wanting streetcar in the future.
Despite an admonishment by Romero to keep questions short and to the point, Majestic Towers resident Susan Green started off the audience participation segment with a detailed litany of objections to the project, primarily centered on the problems that construction will cause. This resulted in catcalls from the audience: “What’s the question?” She never did actually ask a question, but the panel understood her theme and discussed the concept of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.
As the Q&A session continued, it was clear that many of the streetcar foes in the audience were there simply for the sake of political grandstanding. The pro-streetcar faction, on the other hand, tended to be of younger generation, with a less-politicized, more holistic outlook. As Romero pointed out, many of them were likely UTSA students, the very same Millennials that Byrd referenced.
The questions gave the panelists an opportunity to stake out their positions, but little new ground was covered. There were a few highlights to the event, however, such as when Judson stated that people do not want to live downtown because of the poor quality of inner-city schools. Despite the ensuing howls of derision and catcalls, he delved further off-topic by stating that these same people would have to spend extra money sending their children to private schools. Judson would have better served his cause by staying on message.
When the panel was asked why the people of the city can’t vote on this issue, the anti-streetcar faction of the audience became energized. However, they probably didn’t get the response they were looking for. Although Judson stated that the powers-that-be “absolutely don’t want them to vote on this,” it was Briseño who made the more salient point: “When do we vote, and when don’t we?” He then went on to indicate that revenue bonds for projects like the convention center expansion or airport improvements don’t require a vote either. On the same topic, when Briseño indicated that no new taxes would be levied, the anti-streetcar faction in the audience loudly disagreed with him.
Touching on a topic more incendiary to the streetcar foes, however, was the final question, asked by perennial city council candidate Weston Martinez. In a roundabout way, he questioned the $92 million swap in which Bexar County swapped Advanced Transportation District funds with TxDOT. Judson made his opinion on this subject quite clear, calling the swap “money laundering.”
Briseño was quick to point out that just the same day, TxDOT had announced funding for several public transportation projects around the state, including $50 million for streetcars in El Paso, and $25 million for BRT and related projects in San Antonio. “Even TxDOT is looking at transportation in a comprehensive way.”
Byrd and Sanders provided the most nuanced remarks as the discussion came to a close. As Byrd noted, “Streetcar is neither a panacea nor a poison pill.” His position seemed to be that if streetcars succeed, they will do so in a big way, but if they fail to meet expectations, it won’t be the end of the world as we know it.
Sanders capped his theme of the evening by stating, “We need to have a much broader conversation on these issues and VIA’s broader plans. VIA needs to do a better job of communication.” He went on to say that the community deserves better.
Indeed, when a question was made about VIA’s social media outreach to Millennials, there was a confused silence on the stage. That probably underscored a key theme of the discussion: it has become apparent that the streetcar foes have already managed to run a long distance down the track, while VIA still seems to be putting on its running shoes.
*Featured/top image: (L-R) Moderator Francine Romero, along with panelists Darryl Byrd, Jeff Judson, Alex Briseño, and Heywood Sanders at the Streetcar Town Hall meeting. Photo by Tami Kegley.