The Case for the Chavez Streetcar Route

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image from Google Maps

Bekah S. McNeelThe four viable alternatives for the modern streetcar route have one major commonality, and one major difference. All four utilize the same north-south access along Broadway and St. Mary's.

It's the east-west axis that's spurring the most conversation.

Alternatives 5 and 6 have been around longer, and both utilize César Chávez. It was at the VIA June board meeting that another alternative was brought to the table, utilizing Market and Commerce.

Streetcar, alt 5, July 2013

Hemisfair Park  Area Redevolpment Corporation, which will be greatly effected by whichever route is chosen, did some analysis of their own. Based on their findings, César Chávez seems to make more sense. They feel it reduces cost and better fulfills the stated purposes of the modern streetcar project.

The following information is adapted from a technical paper prepared by Hemisfair staff. We welcome the conversation, individuals or organizations with different preferred route(s) or philosophy that would like to craft their own story for publication are encouraged to contact The Rivard Report via email to


The rail construction could easily flow down Chávez without interfering with underground utilities, as they run primarily on a 30-foot off-road easement on the south edge of the right-of-way. Utilities along Commerce and Market run primarily under the road, where rail construction will prove problematic. With rail running on both streets, it's twice the utility interference as running east and west along one street, as it would on Chávez. It takes time and money to solve conflicts with underground utilities.


Taking the rail over bridges is technically challenging, and invites many potentially costly unknowns.

Commerce and Market cross four bridges between St. Mary's and Interstate 37 (I-37). Again, because the route involves two streets, it's double the trouble with bridges. Chávez doesn't traverse a bridge between St. Mary’s Street and I-37.

Bridges along Commerce and Market. from Google Maps

Bridges along Commerce and Market. from Google Maps

Grade Separation

One stated goal is to take the rail system as far east as the AT&T Center. To do this, it will have to cross the Union Pacific Railroad tracks that run along the western edge of the Eastside. The best way to confront the conflict of between street car and train is through grade separation.

The Chávez alignment terminates at the Thompson Transit Center by cutting through Labor Street. An extension to the East can be executed from the Thompson Transit Center on Montana because the heavy rail crossing just east of the Alamodome is already grade separated.

Grade separation on Montana. from Google Maps

Grade separation on Montana. from Google Maps

The Commerce/Market alignment terminates at St Paul’s Square/Sunset Station, where there is not grade separation, currently. To do so would require a long ramp that would adversely affect Sunset Station's connectivity at a cost that could exceed $15 million.

Railroad crossing at Sunset Station. from Google Maps

Railroad crossing at Sunset Station. from Google Maps

Redevelopment Density

The Bexar Appraisal District database shows the value of property on Chávez between St Mary’s and I-37 to be approximately $65 million. The value of property on Commerce/Market between St Mary’s and I-37 is close to $1 billion. That's 15 times the value of property along Chávez.

The Commerce/Market alignment between St Mary’s and the highway fronts 3.3 acres of  parcels available for development. The Chávez alignment fronts 29 acres for development between St Mary’s and the highway. Giving it nine times the land available for development.

San Antonio's preferred density seems to be below 1,000 units an acre. Well below. That's the density that would be required for residential development along Commerce/Market to match Chávez at a mere 100 units per acre. It can be done, like at the Vistana. It's just not as common as developments like HemisView, Cevallos Lofts, and the like.

If you're talking about retail and restaurants, the difference is even more stark, because those business rely on their ground level visibility. You can't have restaurants and boutiques at 1,000 per acre.

None of this should give the impression that Chávez is a wasteland. It's a growing area fueled by locals who will ride the streetcar, and increasingly attractive to visitors who checked the Alamo off their list and still have some days to burn.

Access to the Parks and neighborhoods

The image below shows quarter mile radii (five minute walks) from potential streetcar stations on Chávez, Labor and at the Thompson Transit Center. The entire HemisFair area, Sunset Station, St Paul’s Square, near east side neighborhoods, Institute of Texas Cultures, Magik Theater, UNAM, Instituto Cultural de Mexico, Hemisview, Lavaca and King William are all within the radii. All of this is great for locals and tourists.

It also benefits parks and attractions that might not be on every tourist's radar, but would be visited en route to the places in their Frommer's Guide. For instance, pedestrians traveling from a station at Chávez and Alamo to the Torch of Friendship would be encouraged to walk through Play Escape and Civic Park.

image from Google Maps

image from Google Maps


Below are the same quarter mile radii around stations on Market and Commerce. The southeast portion of the HemisFair at Labor and Goliad isn’t within the quarter mile radii, nor are the Alamodome, Lavaca and King William.

image from Google Maps

image from Google Maps

Access to the Convention Center

Future plans for the Convention Center will make it equally accessible from Market or Labor Street stations thanks to entrances on the Convention Center expansion, and the “Liner” building south of the expansion and east of the Tower of the Americas.

The distance from the Labor Street station to the south entrance of the Convention Center at Concourse level is 700 feet or just over an eighth of a mile – about a three minute walk through the Tower Park. This entry encourages Convention Center employees and attendees to access Hemisfair, increasing the park’s use and the quality of life for the users, far from antagonizing or ignoring them.

The Hemisfair analysis, in addition to simple cost figures, does yield three value statements:

  • The streetcar does need to benefit locals. All kind of locals. Southtowners might be the most keen to hop on, but Chávez also brings in the near east and west sides of downtown, with the potential to easily expand further into those communities. The ridership on the Chávez route could easily reflect the diversity of the city. Beyond the obvious social benefit of local ridership, it's a good idea if the people who are asked to support it benefit from it. Tourists and conventioneers come and go...locals invest.
  • It needs to have visible impact on development. This reality is both practical and political. Practically, you want to get the most boom for your buck, and there's a lot of boom potential on Chávez. Politically, it can only benefit future mass transit plans if the streetcar is involved with a visible increase in quality of life and economic activity in the areas it serves. If it runs up and down a corridor that looks largely the same as it did before  the streetcar, it will be hard to illustrate the return on investment.
  • It needs to keep the next phase in mind. Many are supporting the streetcar based on the promise that can lead to future mass transit all over the city. It's important for VIA to make decisions with the long view in mind.

Streetcar, alt 6, July 2013

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.


Related Stories:

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

Out Of Town Attack on Streetcars

VIA Primo Service: Mixed Reviews From Residents

Betty on the Bus: A Returning Senior Gets Around

Why I Ride the Bus. Why Don’t You?


3 thoughts on “The Case for the Chavez Streetcar Route

  1. Excellent discussion of why Cesar Chavez makes more sense than a Market/Commerce route for east-west.

    Has anyone done a study comparing the whole streetcar concept to an alernative that employs new Hybrid Buses with improved stops, scheduling and dedicated lanes? Seems you could move a lot more people a lot more cheaply that way, and it would be much cheaper to modify the route since you would not need to lay rail.

  2. Here is the letter on the East West route that precipitated a re-thinking…

    The Robert Thompson Transit Center is shown consistently as the East side destination for the street car route going East to West in the VIA plan. The route and terminal combination do not hold up to planning and design analysis as successful design methodology and it is important for you to understand a second point of view.

    1) The proposed street car route as proposed through the HPARC land is not supported by the kind of population density that transportation planners like to have when constructing mass transit systems like the street car. (As an Architect, I can offer these loose numbers for consideration—at solid three story buildings along Cesar Chavez, one might expect roughly 700-800 residents, at higher density—eight stories would yield maybe 2400 residents, and at the density of cities in the world such as Sao Paulo, Brazil, perhaps a row of thirty story towers.) The first number might be accomplished by the San Antonio building “pattern” and would not be enough to support the rider demand needed for a profitable system.

    2) The Robert Thompson Transit Center is not suitable as a terminal for the street car and would have to be re-configured entirely to function as such, along with it’s new use as an everyday bus interchange. Also, the terminal is dis-connected to the urban neighborhood that begins with the center at St. Paul’s square.

    The solution seems to be as follows,

    1) Run the streetcar route from the existing Sunset depot West on Commerce so as to access the three hotels and entry to the convention center, along with the mall (all before Alamo Plaza) before turning to the South along Alamo toward Nueva. This solution allows a much larger population of riders to use the system as soon as it opens and solves a lot of the density concerns.

    2) Re-purpose Sunset Depot as the actual terminal for the rail car “destination” on the East side. This will allow a re-use of a great space and begin the reconnection of the facility (and it’s users) to it’s neighborhood.

    The Robert Thompson Center then would be a bus facility that would handle the large movement of collector busses from the neighborhoods, but not the actual terminal.

    Now, the argument for the Nueva street turn is as follows;

    The street connects all of the important “venues” along the East/West corridor and is within a block of them, including Main Plaza (plus City Hall and the County court, the new Police Center, the proposed Federal Court,Market Square, and UTSA. There is also the two points that there is some room for development along Nueva and it is close to Southtown/King William. (We may call this the “government route”) Note that Cesar Chavez development (West of Alamo) will also be able to walk to this route.

    The Martin street route, while tempting, is far North (many blocks) of all of these destinations, but has development potential on it’s own.(a least two primary blocks) We can call this one the “business route”.

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