Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) questions the panelists about how they see San Antonio developing in reaction to projects that Bexar County will attract one million additional residents by 2040. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

San Antonians have only begun to feel the pangs of traffic congestion, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said Saturday, and one of the ways to relieve the existing and future intensity of the problem is light rail.

Nirenberg told a crowd of about 150 District 8 residents, neighbors, and city leaders gathered at the Phil Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center for his State of the District address, that his top funding priority for the fast-approaching 2017-2022 Bond Program will be securing a “down payment” for future rail projects in San Antonio.

“We need a rail debate. We need a rail vote. And we need it next May,” he said, to unanimous applause.

The list of high-dollar improvement projects on the $750 million municipal bond will ultimately be decided on by voters during the bond election in May 2017. Light rail supporters might have an uphill battle to convince the public to divorce the concept of light rail from the failed streetcar attempt in 2014.

Read more: Urban Literacy: What is a Municipal Bond?

But what Nirenberg envisions for light rail in San Antonio, to connect population and service hubs across the city, is something completely different from the streetcar, which essentially became a downtown circulator.

“If we’re going to be investing $750 million or more in the future of San Antonio, the number one issue – in the Northside, Southside, Eastside, and Westside – is transportation,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report after his speech. “We simply can’t just put more busses on already congested streets, we’ve got to leverage a new transit system … we’ve got to invest in a fixed route between these high density corridors.”

The streetcar debate, which attracted special interest groups, from the Tea Party to the firefighters union to out-of-town conservative think tanks, led to the passing of a City Charter amendment in the May 2015 election that requires a public vote on all rail projects involving the City.

One of the fatal flaws of the street project, said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), was that voters who live and work outside of Loop 410 didn’t see the value in a downtown circulator. It wasn’t for them.

“They would care about rail between the airport and downtown,” he said, an idea that resonated with many audience members. “But we need to be strategic in how we start to propose these things.”

Kevin Wolff, Bexar County Commissioner, questions where the money will come from the build a light rail from San Antonio to Austin. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) questions where the money will come for a commuter rail project connecting San Antonio to Austin. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Wolff joined VIA Metropolitan Transit CEO Jeff Arndt, City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability Director Doug Melnick, and Tech Bloc Executive Director Marina Gavito on a lively panel discussion about the future of transportation in San Antonio before Nirenberg’s address.

Project location, scope and price will need to be debated and discussed after the Multimodal Transportation Plan is finalized and released this spring, Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg is a tri-chair of SA Tomorrow, the City’s three-pronged comprehensive planning effort to anticipate the impacts of an estimated city population growth of 1 million by 2040. Public input meetings have been held for months (and continue) to inform the comprehensive, sustainability, and multimodal plans. He said his call for light rail will be backed up by the Multimodal Plan.

“It absolutely is,” he said. “And that’s what the plan is for – to guide the City’s funding and policy priorities. … The bond program needs to nod to that (vision).”

Wolff questioned if the public is truly ready to make major investments into a shift away from capacity-building projects for cars towards the big-ticket items like light rail, bus rapid transit and establishing a more robust network of bike lanes.

“We as a community are in what I would call a transition. We haven’t quite reached our threshold of pain,” he said, because in comparison to other major cities, San Antonio has relatively few problem traffic areas. “It’s going to be very hard to make those changes until we reach that threshold.”

But to be fair, Nirenberg said, on Wurzbach Parkway, one of the more congested rush-hour thoroughfares, “that threshold of pain has already arrived.”

Capacity projects are still needed and included on his list of priorities for District 8, he said during his address.

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“Within 25 years, we will have an additional 1 million people living in our city. That’s another 500,000 vehicles, another 500,000 housing units, another 500,000 jobs. Data shows that our commute times will increase by 75 %,” he said. “If we don’t plan our resources accordingly, and instead do to the same things we’ve always done while expecting different results, by definition, that’s insanity. It would be a failure of leadership.”

The alternatives to driving yourself need to be reliable, frequent, and competitive to car travel time in order for people to start seriously considering mass transit, Arndt added.

“We are baking a cake,” Arndt said of VIA’s long-term planning. “A carrot cake.”

The actual cake is the fundamental bus system, the icing is rapid transit – which could include rail, and on top is technology: rideshare, bike share, and mobile applications like Ride Scout, which analyzes all available transportation options for any given trip for users to choose from.

“If I could give up my car today, I absolutely would,” said Gavito, who showed Arndt the Ride Scout app, but the alternatives aren’t time or cost effective enough. “To attract the new generation of workers, transportation is critically important … these people look for things like walkability and multimodal transportation.”

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Melnick pointed out that busses and light rail can’t go everywhere. The pedestrian and cycling elements need to be improved to improve that “last mile” of transportation once a commuter or visitor steps off the bus.

“It’s all about an inter-connected system,” he said. “We need a plan to make changes now so we don’t have to react (to a problem) at the end of the day.”

Light rail doesn’t solve the entire transportation puzzle, the panelists agreed. And one of the biggest challenges is an all-too-common one. Funding.

“We’ve got to start with the ideal and work back to the real,” Wolff said. “Revenue is the biggest problem of transportation.”

VIA is funded through a half-cent sales tax that is capped by the state.

“We are the least-funded transit property in the state,” Arndt said.

A City committee was formed last year after Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) proposed transferring some of the City’s Advanced Transportation District funds, funded by a quarter-cent tax, to VIA to purchase more buses to reduce wait times at bus stops. VIA already takes half of the ATD funding, the City takes a quarter and TxDOT takes the remaining quarter. The City uses its share for sidewalk/intersection improvements, traffic signals and other smaller-scale infrastructure projects.

The Advanced Transportation District Ad Hoc Committee met for the first time last week to consider giving up the City’s share and explore other funding options.

“We’ve spent 65 years building a very robust highway system — we haven’t spent any significant money building high capacity transit system,” Arndt said of the seemingly daunting numbers needed to expand mass transit options.

The most daunting price tags has been that of the almost two decade old, $2.5-4 billion Lone Star Rail proposal that would connect San Antonio and Austin via light rail. It’s a project that is now seen by many as unfeasible after Union Pacific withdrew from consideration of the passenger cars sharing its freight line that follows Interstate 35.

“Lone Star Rail is not viable in its current form,” Wolff said. “That doesn’t mean the idea of rail between austin and San Antonio is dead.”

Tech Bloc, which advocates for the local technology industry, threw its support behind Lone Star Rail, Gavito said. “(Lone Star) is fizzling out, but a reboot is needed. … we needed it to happen yesterday.”

The City committed $500,000 towards initial staffing and consultant work for the Lone Star Rail District. Nirenberg has the impression that the money will still be allocated for planning, but City Council will be briefed on the matter soon.

Local rail should be a relatively easy sell to voters, he said.

“If we consider our current and future resources, and we are hearing what residents are saying, they want a comprehensive system with the option of local commuter rail,” Nirenberg said. “They want local rail because in 2016, it makes sense if it’s done right.”

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*Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) questions the panelists about how they see San Antonio’s transportation systems accommodating a massive increase in population.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Why San Antonio’s Streetcar Project Ran Off the Rails

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com