Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board members have always expected some level of local opposition to the proposed $200 million streetcar plan on the drawing boards for 2016-17, but they didn't expect to attract the attention of Randal O’Toole and the Heartland Institute.
The debate now has taken an unmapped turn. Tuesday evening's meeting was not your normal neighborhood gathering. The room was abuzz with talk of O'Toole, who was accompanied on his rounds by Jeff Judson, an Olmos park City Councilman, senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, and a long-standing opponent to any form of light rail transit in the city.
Earlier in the day, at a meeting held at the private Argyle Club in Alamo Heights, the San Antonio franchise of the Heartland Institute hosted the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute researcher as he presented his findings on the potential impact of streetcars on our city. District Eight Councilman Reed Williams was among the local hosts of the event.
O’Toole’s agenda aligns with the ultra-conservative, Chicago-based think-tank, which famously lost some major funding after posting a billboard equating those who believe in climate change with Ted Kaczinsky. O’Toole is a nationally recognized contrarian to current trends in city planning.
His findings are available as a PDF titled “The Streetcar Fantasy.” I highly recommend reading all 24 pages, alongside SmartWay SA’s Long Range Comprehensive Transit Plan (LRCTP). Then you can form your own opinion.
Local officials, who have spent years carefully preparing for introduction of modern streetcars into San Antonio's mass transit system, find themselves facing off against a national consultant with no real connection to San Antonio who has long opposed streetcar systems and, for that matter, any form of government-subsidized urban transit solutions. His opposition carries more than a tinge of fringe politics, too, according to Wolff.
Tuesday evening's meeting at Sunset Station kicked off the Alternatives Analysis phase of the downtown circulator system, the transportation entity's plan for high-capacity transit service to transport passengers throughout the downtown area. VIA has invited citizens to weigh in on the still-undecided north-south and east-west routes, and share concerns of how construction and implementation might negatively impact their neighborhoods or businesses.
Wolff, an avid proponent of the streetcar project and the entire LRCTP, was not shy about sharing his thoughts on O’Toole’s research.
Wolff first pointed out that O’Toole was working on behalf of two organizations that have been largely discredited because of their ties to the tobacco and oil industries, not to mention the billboard incident. “They compared [anyone who believes in climate change] to the Unabomber," Wolff said. "That’s ridiculous.”
“They raise issues they are wrong about,” Wolff said in dismissing “The Streetcar Fantasy,” which actually was prepared to discredit another city's urban streetcar plan and was then repurposed for use in the San Antonio debate.
Wolff debunked the claim that the streetcar would be a tax-increment financing (TIF) project, stating that VIA is pursuing grants and other sources of revenue.
Other claims made in O’Toole’s paper were perplexing. One theme was the environmental disadvantage of streetcars compared to automobiles.
Some excerpts rom the report:
“Streetcars don’t even have the virtue of saving energy or reducing air pollution. The average streetcar line today uses twice as much energy to move someone one passenger mile as the average car. In places such as Texas, where a major portion of the electricity used to power streetcars comes from burning fossil fuels, the streetcars end up causing more pollution per passenger mile than cars (page 2).”
“In 2010, the average car consumed about 3,450 BTUs per passenger mile. The seven streetcar lines reviewed in the feasibility study consumed an average of almost 7,000 BTUs per passenger mile (page 21).”
So, yes, if the city intends for each commuter to have his own streetcar, then it’s a terrible investment. However if any three people on the streetcar at a given time represent three people who would be driving their own cars, then the streetcar is the lower-energy option.
O’Toole’s paper also suggests that buses are better than streetcars, and that people use them more for various reasons, including their flexibility.
“If streetcars really did have a rail advantage over buses, then the streetcars operating in various cities around the country should be jammed with riders. In fact, the average streetcar carries fewer riders than the average bus in five of the seven cities with streetcar lines (page 17).”
So, again, if VIA were canceling all bus routes, including the Bus Rapid Transit system they plan to launch on December 17, then, again, streetcars would be a bad investment. Streetcars are meant to be one element in a larger network of mass transit. They would supplant some downtown buses, freeing those vehicles for use elsewhere while decreasing downtown congestion.
Perhaps the strangest line of thinking in O'Toole's paper is the apparent derision for people who prefer rail to bus, assuming that they are “snobbish” and apparently crowd averse.
“Claims that streetcars have some kind of a 'rail advantage' that attracts travelers who won’t ride a bus are purely hypothetical. If there are people so snobbish that they will ride public transit vehicles only if those vehicles are on rails, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize them (page 2).”
“The typical modern streetcar used in Portland, Seattle, and other cities is about 66 feet long and has just 30 to 35 seats. This compares with a typical full-sized bus, which is 40 feet long and has about 40 seats. Streetcar advocates claim higher capacities because streetcars have standing room for many more people; however, that depends on the willingness of transit riders to cram close to one another (Page 4).”
I’m one such "snob" who would prefer to ride alongside other "snobs" rather than pay for downtown parking or try to figure out which VIA bus will take me to Houston Street instead of UTSA. Bus routes can be confusing unless you use them regularly. If the point is to make downtown accessible, then a north-south axis and an east-west axis make a lot of sense.
Perhaps the most sweeping misrepresentation was the impact city leaders expect to see from the modest rail proposal.
“Local government officials who believe that streetcars alone will revitalize blighted parts of their urban areas have been deceived (page 24),” O’Toole wrote.
Though he did not reference the Heartland study from the podium, Wolff, in his address to the meeting, said the impact of public transit enhances infill development already underway in San Antonio.
“You don’t put a streetcar in the middle of a cornfield and expect economic development,” he said.
City leaders are not deceived about the potential for these first steps in the long-term goals of our city. They’ve done their homework, and now they are asking us to do ours. VIA wants our feedback on proposed routes, and hopefully those who see the value in the downtown circulator and San Antonio’s steps into mass transit will give them what they need to make the best decisions for our city.
Bekah McNeel 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. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.