Electric Trolley Pays a Quiet Visit to San Antonio

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GreetStreet demonstration trolley at Alamo Plaza. Photo courtesy of Hometown Trolley.

GreetStreet demonstration trolley passes through Alamo Plaza. Photo courtesy of Hometown Trolley.

A Wisconsin-based trolley company believes it has an alternative solution to San Antonio’s canceled $280 million streetcar project that will serve more people across more of the city at far less cost. The $80 million proposal involves a fleet of 60-80 emission-free, electric trolleys able to cover up to 140 miles on a single charge.

The air-conditioned street trolleys run on rubber tires and are powered by a bank of 12 lb. lithium-ion batteries. In-street induction chargers can be installed at proposed major stops, such as the Quarry Market, Pearl, the Blue Star, or Centro Plaza, VIA’s Westside Multimodal Center, to recharge the trolleys on the run.

Roger Grey, a local consultant working with Hometown Trolley, a third-generation family-run trolley designer and manufacturer based in Crandon, Wis., said he and company representatives have met three times with VIA Metropolitan Transit staff, once in December, again in April to discuss routing  and address technical questions, and earlier this month when an electric streetcar was brought down from Wisconsin for review. Click here to download Hometown Trolley’s pitch presentation.

“There are many ways to get this done, but this is most affordable and environmentally-friendly solution,” Grey said. “It’s a River Walk-quality amenity brought up to the street level that’s for locals and that’s why visitors will want to ride it. This would solve a lot of San Antonio’s transportation challenges and will earn the city the kind of national attention it deserves and needs in order to keep flourishing.”

And, Grey noted, VIA has access to Texas Department of Transportation funds and possible federal transportation dollars that could help underwrite or even cover the system’s cost.

The process until now has escaped public view, but Hometown Trolley CEO Kristina Dunow is hopeful that electric trolleys become part of VIA’s fleet upgrade plans in the coming year. Grey said VIA officials told Hometown Trolley executives that they intend to replace 80% of its 450-vehicle fleet over the next 18 months.

“At our last meeting, they wanted more information on our charging options, in particular, the en-route charger which is installed in the ground as a flat charging plate where trolleys load and unload,” Kristina Pence-Dunow said. “We didn’t get a yes or now from VIA, but they said they were considering putting our all-electric trolleys in their next procurement bid along with other vehicles they are buying for other services, so now it’s  matter of whether they decide they want the trolleys.”

VIA officials were not available for comment for this story.

Dunow, whose husband, Joey Dunow, is the chief engineer, said individual vehicles range in price from $650,000 to $800,000, well below the price of low-emission buses. They come in three lengths of 31, 34 and 37 feet, and seat between 24 and 34 people. Different technology and finish options, including brass and mahogany exterior trim, are available. The vehicles travel at speeds ranging from “a 2 mph crawl to 55 mph.”

“The appearance of our trolley is very fitting for the downtown area, reminiscent of the old electric passenger cars, historically authentic, but otherwise modern in every sense, with breakthrough technology packages and the ability to recharge batteries en route, as  is being down now in Europe,” Pence-Dunow said. “Our trolleys travel up to 140 miles on a single charge, depending on what else is running in the bus, and can recharge on the go. VIA staff tell us they are only getting 25-30 miles of range with the electric buses they are using, which apparently have transmission problems, too.”

VIA Metropolitan Transit has three EcoRide electric buses manufactured by Proterra. Photo courtesy of VIA.

VIA Metropolitan Transit has three EcoRide electric buses manufactured by Proterra. Photo courtesy of VIA.

VIA recently purchased three electric Proterra EcoRide buses that currently circulate in downtown. VIA officials have not issued any formal reviews of the vehicles. Proterra produced many of the low-emission buses still used by Denver’s Regional Transportation District on its 16th Street Mall.

(Read more: Denver’s MallRide Could be San Antonio’s Broadway-Blue Star Express.)

“Our all-electric trolleys don’t have transmissions, they have a magnetic turbine and regenerative braking,” Pence-Dunow said. “We also install all the fare box packages that are out there on the market. The Genfare Fastfare is the cutting edge fare system, and we are installing those right now in our trolleys in Virginia Beach, Va. You can swipe your smart phone upon boarding, or buy a month-long swipe card. Then we can add Wifi, GPS, there are lots of amenity packages out there.”

Grey said VIA could purchase and operate the most ambitious fleet and routing system proposed by Hometown Trolley for less than $80 million, which would include 80 trolleys, bus terminal charging systems and in-ground chargers located along the routes, and driver and maintenance costs for the first few years. 

A More Expanded Route System and Customer Base

Hometown Trolley, with Grey’s local knowledge and mapping, has proposed a detailed plan using five different routes to ply the urban core and beyond, collectively dubbed “The Brain Train” because the routes connect all the area institutions of higher education, most of the city’s landmark cultural attractions and many of the most important destinations in the Central Business District (see map). All lines, named by color here for conforming to the map, would start at VIA’s Westside Multimodal Transit Center.

Proposed transit route from Hometown Trolley.

Proposed transit route from Hometown Trolley.

  • The Red Line would leave the Westside Multimodal Center, near the UTSA Downtown Campus, travel east on East Houston Street, then head north on Broadway from downtown, through River North, past the Pearl and the museums, travel north past Hildebrand Avenue, University of Incarnate Word and Central Market and through Alamo Heights. The trolley would then turn on Austin Highway to reach the McNay Art Museum, return to Broadway and head north to Basse Road, turning west to Quarry Market.  On its return route, the Red Line would head south to East Houston Street, two blocks from the Alamo, and return to the Westside Multimodal Center.
  • The Green Line would leave Centro Plaza, a far more appealing name than the Westside Multimodal Center, travel up Navarro Street to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, angle northwest to North Main Avenue to San Antonio College and then travel via North St. Mary’s Street and Mulberry Avenue to Trinity University and east on Hildebrand Avenue to UIW, before returning south.
  • The Yellow Line would depart Centro Plaza, pick up where the Red Line ends on East Houston Street, turning south on South Alamo Street, passing Hemisfair Park, moving through Southtown on South Alamo Street, passing the Blue Star, heading west to South Flores Street, before returning to Southtown and South St. Mary’s Street, and then heading south to Mission Road, terminating at Mission San José.
  • The Orange Line would head east on East Houston Street, pass the Alamo Plaza, and make its way to the Freeman Coliseum and the AT&T Center, and then turn south and then west to reach St. Phillip’s College and then turn back to reach the Alamodome, Hemisfair Park and the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and from there return to Centro Plaza.
  • The Blue Line would head west from Centro Plaza on West Commerce St. past El Mercado, traveling to Our Lady of the Lake University and turning north and west to reach St. Mary’s University before reversing course.
Graphic courtesy of Hometown Trolley.

Graphic courtesy of Hometown Trolley (for route comparison).

Are Electric Trolleys Part of San Antonio’s Transportation Solutions?

Earlier this month, Hometown Trolley sent one of its 34′, all-electric trolleys to San Antonio for show-and-tell sessions with VIA and City officials, and a tour of the Midtown corridor that turned heads as the colorful, attractively-designed, low-floor vehicle glided silently through the Pearl, Brackenridge Park and other destinations along Broadway.

The GreenStreet trolley rolls by the Pearl Brewery. Photo courtesy of Hometown Trolley.

The GreenStreet trolley rolls by the Pearl Brewery. Photo courtesy of Hometown Trolley.

Hometown Trolley has low emission, natural gas trolleys and older, legacy fuel system trolleys operating in many U.S. cities, but it is the first trolley manufacturer to design and build an emission-free, all-electric trolley. All but the batteries are U.S.-made, Grey said, and the company is seeking domestic battery providers to eliminate current imports from China.

Grey said company executives hope to introduce the all-electric model in San Antonio, the largest city in the country without light rail, where VIA transit planners are seeking alternative multi-modal solutions more acceptable in a city divided over other options.

No new major alternative projects have been put forward since Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council withdrew their support for the VIA streetcar project last summer, not long after Mayor Julian Castro resigned his office mid-term and left San Antonio to join the Obama administration as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

In the wake of the political shift at City Hall against the streetcar project, voters approved a City Charter amendment on the May 9 ballot that now makes any proposed light rail project using right of way in San Antonio to first be subjected to a citywide vote. That outcome has led officeholders and business leaders to conclude that light rail projects will not become a viable alternative in San Antonio for some time, certainly not before the City and VIA take other steps to address the city’s growing traffic and congestion issues that prove successful and build community confidence to do more.

Replacing the Existing Trolleys

VIA Streetcar/Trolley in Alamo Plaza

VIA Trolley in Alamo Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

VIA officials might be tempted to purchase Hometown Trolley electric vehicles to replace the aging fleet of Chance Trolleys that now ferry tourists through the downtown area. Those vehicles are noisy, polluting, and spare parts are no longer available. Local avoid them as impractical transportation options. The Wichita, KA company went out of business some years ago, and Hometown Trolley, which bought the company’s widely-used seat molds, has on occasion overhauled some of the trolleys, using their own replacement parts.

“Chance built a very nice trolley in their day out of Wichita, but those trolleys now are definitely on their last leg, and we were told they have to replaced  in the next year and a half,” Pence-Dunow said.

That would be a low-risk move, but it would fail to address the growing demand among locals for more transit options. As Grey, the company’s consultant said, build a system that locals embrace and choose to make part of their daily commutes to work and their lifestyles, and that same system will attract plenty of visitors who want to experience San Antonio just like the locals.


*Featured/top image: GreetStreet demonstration trolley passes through Alamo Plaza. Photo courtesy of Hometown Trolley.


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18 thoughts on “Electric Trolley Pays a Quiet Visit to San Antonio

  1. I’m pro-public transportation, but the question that hit my mind about this is… Why would anyone want to sit on hard seats that were common in the 1800s for their daily transportation needs? This is a cute, old-fashioned trolley that would work fine for the free E route downtown, but it is NOT the solution for moving people living along the Broadway/South Alamo route from cars to mass transit .

    • Sam,

      I presume your comment was a least somewhat facetious; still, I’ve long wished the Brackenridge Park Rail Road could possess a future as something besides a glorified amusement park ride. Unfortunately, as long as it’s owned by the San Antonio Zoo, it will be operated as their veritable cash cow.

      Those who currently control its destiny will do whatever necessary to discourage point-to-point and intermediate traffic (i.e. “real” transport business).

      Sad, but true.


  2. No, please no. SA needs to focus on expanding BRT service since the light rail looks like it won’t happen anyyyy time soon. SA needs to copy Bogota, Columbia and get people excited about BRT, and giving lanes strictly for that so people have more incentive to use the bus when they see it passing them while stuck in traffic.

  3. Hate them!! Why have them look like an old time trolley. We already have them but gas powered. Why not something either an old style bus from the 40’s or 50’s when SA had its boom time. Turn those into electric and have at it!!!

    • I lived in San Francisco and rode the Cable Cars (they are not trolleys) as part of my daily commute to work. This proposal is just more busses. These just happen to run on batteries. This is not the right solution. Street Cars should be brought back on the table.

      • Thank you, Brandon.

        You know, San Antonio’s anti-rail paranoia is becoming a painful albatross – and will eventually undermine the city’s growth and prosperity. It’s too bad “the-powers-that-be” don’t care.


  4. Love it – and thankful VIA is finally thinking:

    – expanded downtown area (historic San Antonio) – with routes within the 410 loop closer to the historic streetcar routes of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The proposed routing understands public transit as a shared public space for visitors and locals – as well as universities as key sites of visitation. While the proposed stops might seem biased to visitors, the service could support less car-dependent development near these sites and along routes.

    – legacy & legibility- visitors and locals understood and liked the sometimes redundant four (later three and now two) line trolley bus system running constantly through at least the 80s, 90s and noughts . . . although the diesel technology could be rough for passengers at times, especially the older open air trolley buses with caboose balcony (which kids loved). More recent arrivals (post 2008?) wouldn’t understand how much the trolley bus system in San Antonio has been degraded in recent years or the key role that frequent and regular trolley bus service played in the development of greater Southtown (including as a location for car-free living) before the expansion of the River Walk – or their role in animating various corners of downtown.

    – minibus – a better ride experience. More appropriate to and supportive of (less negative impact on) historic sites, street design and neighborhoods. Easier to recruit and train drivers. Easier to run on streets or paths that might otherwise be completely pedestrianized – including potentially various San Antonio park drives (forget NYC’s High Line; see car-free Central Park and visionzero). More compatible with stop / start traffic and reduced speed areas (visionzero)

    – distributed electric – including likely tie-ins with solar production at transit stops and at public facilities along routes. Electric minibuses offer better acceleration and are much more cost-effective to maintain and operate than other fuel type buses, particularly if the energy is sourced from renewables. Along with supporting neighborhood renewable energy production, there are likely smart grid benefits as well (trolley buses as battery storage).

    – cost-effectiveness – $80m for an 80 trolley bus / four line system is on par with the $70m PRIMO system buses and infrastructure (paid, in part, by $52m from the Fed). It is at least $200m less than the planned streetcar (which would have cost at least $8m to operate annually) and could be operational in months compared with years. Trolley buses could support and improve PRIMO (and support expansion) by eliminating the running of the 60 foot PRIMO buses through the downtown area where they are frequently delayed. ays.

    – flexibility- driverless technology is around the corner, along with the ability to network or link vehicles. Linked rubber tire carriages can and do serve currently throughout the world as metro system carriages, elevated monorail system carriages, or carriages for combination separated path and shared road systems. Like with fixed rail system, the speed, frequency, and reliability of the trolley bus service along with the quality of waiting areas and the pedestrian network around and leading to stops will be key.

    – transit system as tourism draw – the proposed system would be nation- if not world-leading and could offer the kind of experience that encourages leisure ridership and urban exploration. I currently wouldn’t hop on a bus downtown or to a university or in an unknown direction (Naco Pass?) unless I absolutely had to. But I would likely check out a campus or other site or the extent of a ‘line ‘with this particular service.

    Nice work, VIA – and hope the City goes for it!

    (ps. how about a line from St. Mary’s to SAC via Woodlawn, Fredericksburg Road and Ashby? And please include a tap ticketing system if not running this service fare free. Also, please allow boarding from both doors to speed up services. Great work!)

    • If VIA wants to (re)establish a comprehensive, dedicated inner-city shuttle bus system, that’s its business.

      Regrettably, decorating a bus to look like a streetcar only fools those who are woefully ignorant regarding the true nature of rail-based transit, with its myriad advantages and benefits. Of course, that may be one of VIA’s ultimate goals.

      It certainly seems to be an ongoing desire for the anything-but-train advocates: confuse the issue so it becomes easier to pretend that bus operations (“trolleys,” bus “rapid transit,” etc.) are almost as good as (and less expensive than) streetcars, light rail services, subways, interurbans and regional rail lines.

      Simply put: if buses are so wonderful, why is it necessary to fool people in to thinking they’re trains?!


      Garl B. Latham

      P.S. A “trolley bus” is NOT a bus manufactured to look like a “trolley” (i.e. streetcar). It’s an electric bus designed to operate along a fixed route, using overhead wires.


  5. Looks like a pretty good consolation prize. In the end though this is still a bus, and won’t have the main benefit that a streetcar has over a bus – you don’t experience getting thrown around side to side as the bus swerves to the curb for pick up. It seems like a minor thing, but if you’ve ridden an extensive street car system like San Francisco’s or Toronto’s, you realize how big of an impact it has on comfort, and therefore the ability to attract discretionary transit riders.

    • I think the electric trolley bus pitch (linked in the article above) is on the right track by envisioning San Antonio commuter rail in the near future along existing or historic rail right-of-ways; I read the pitch as San Antonio considering:

      The long planned LSTAR I35 corridor commuter rail to Austin / Georgetown with six stops envisioned from south to north San Antonio (although more stops could be added to a local VIA-operated service along the same right-of-way, envisioning LSTAR as locally an ‘express’ service with local trains run to more stops in San Antonio between LSTAR regional runs) http://lonestarrail.com/index.php/lstar/map/

      An I10 corridor commuter rail from downtown north to at least Boerne:

      Hope both potential commuter / metro rail projects would move forward quickly – and the City will also look at existing rail right-of-way potential in the south and east sectors of the city.

      • Mark,

        It’s interesting you found it necessary to ignore Jack’s basic point:

        “In the end…this is still a bus…” Such service has a “big…impact…on comfort, and therefore the ability to attract discretionary transit riders.”

        Even if VIA and the city of San Antonio eventually decide to support other rail-based projects (such as LStar), that still wouldn’t make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear.


  6. All:
    Doesn’t anyone remember when “Triparty” demolished the streets in downtown they found “Street Car” tracks in Alamo plaza, Houston street many other locations, which were from San Antonio’s old “Street Car system”. The system was dismantled due to excessive operational cost, fixed routes, increased car traffic, increased vehicle to car accidents, and law suits.

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