Billionaire Outsiders Take Special Interest in VIA Streetcar Plan

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Streetcar rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Streetcar rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

For the past year, much discussion has ensued regarding the VIA Transit Board of Trustees’s funding of the so-called streetcar project. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fiscal conservative who was originally opposed to the idea of a streetcar, because of the price tag alone.

After more research, and realizing the vast majority of all mass-transit systems, good and bad, are subsidized, I became a supporter of the streetcar project. If for no other reason than we are virtually the last major metropolitan city in this country that does not have such a mass-transit system available to commuters. As unique as San Antonio is as a city, I do not think this should be an area where we set ourselves apart from progress in the 21st century, at a time when vehicle transportation congestion will inevitably worsen as we continue to grow.

While the plan itself is modest in scale – in terms of route lines, not expense – the reality is the system must start somewhere. But without beginning at all, there will be no room for improvement for a mass-transit scheme that by contrast to other cities of similar stature, San Antonio falls far behind at the national level. Perhaps most importantly, as it relates to San Antonians, the plan will reduce bus traffic downtown by 60 percent.

Without going into the reasoning further, however, the debate is over, because the issue has already been decided by the VIA Transit Board. The discussion persists only because two billionaires who are not from San Antonio or even Texas are using San Antonio voters to meddle in local politics to achieve a national objective.

Relevant Law

Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

VIA is governed by an eleven-member board of trustees. VIA is a metropolitan transit authority created according to Article 1118x of the Texas civil statutes, superseded by Chapter 451 Texas Transportation Code, to provide public transportation services within the designated boundaries.

A confirmation election was held in the majority of Bexar County on November 8, 1977, and voters approved the creation and funding of VIA Metropolitan Transit through a one-half cent sales tax to be levied in San Antonio and seven other incorporated municipalities. The same sales tax money that is being used to fund the streetcar project.

  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.135(a) the VIA Transit board "shall adopt a strategic plan that establishes the authority's mission and goals.  The plan must set policies and service priorities to guide the authority in allocating resources."
  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.135(b)  "The plan must set policies and service priorities to guide the authority in developing a budget and allocating resources.  An authority exercises public and essential governmental functions and is a matter of public necessity."
  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.052(a)(3), 451.052(b).  "An authority may acquire, construct, develop, own, operate, and maintain a transit authority system and shall determine routes."
  • Tex. Trans. Code 451.056(a),(d)  "Moreover, the board shall adopt a policy of involving the public in board decisions regarding authority policies.
  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.138(a)(1),(3) "The policy must ensure the public has an opportunity to comment on board matters before a vote on the matters, and establish a time frame and mechanism for the board to obtain public input throughout the year leading up to decision."

Streetcar Project Becomes Law

The fact remains that VIA held the necessary public meetings, and public support for passage of the Streetcar Project was overwhelming, but supporters have since gone into hiding since the funding became approved. It’s only now AFTER the funding has been approved that outside special interest has funded an effort to revisit the topic that we’ve seen resistance to this streetcar project take hold. The reality is the streetcar system will be built using existing funds, and since no new tax or tax increase is needed, a referendum is not permitted under Texas state law.

Effectively, since the state legislature has deferred this transit authority to the Via Transit Board, this decision is now law.  The appropriate vehicle for challenging any valid law or decision in this instance, is with the Texas legislature itself. Currently, there is no viable legal vehicle by which to challenge this decision in the courts, while lacking a justiciable case or controversy, or democratically: there is no mechanism in place at the moment to allow for a referendum, city council, or commissioner’s court vote to overturn this decision-making authority.

Opponents of the law would have the public think that if enough people sign the petition to amend the city charter this could somehow reverse the already funded program by purportedly invalidating the authority of the state sanctioned Via Transit Board.

But what the special interest groups are not telling the public is that taxpayers would be responsible for the million dollar bill, if this turns into an actual justiciable controversy to be fought in a courtroom among competing governmental entities.

Without speculating on how this complex conflict of laws analysis may or may not unfold, it’s more than likely that taxpayers would ultimately be responsible for the untold millions of dollars in court costs and expenses associated with litigation to resolve this very issue, in the unlikely event it even gets that far.  As expensive as the already decided streetcar project may be now, it will only be more expensive if this matter reaches this controversial level involving the courts.

As previously mentioned, the decision by the Board has been made to fund the plan to create a streetcar system. Again, the passage of this law or ideology on either side of this equation has nothing to do with the political powers of the legislative bodies of City of San Antonio and Bexar County governance.  To the extent members of these legislative bodies are responsible for fulfilling the state mandated appointments to the Board itself, their accountability ends.

What is this Really All About?

In local San Antonio politics the issue has been hotly contested throughout the past several months. The polling on the issue has itself reflected a public vacillation between support and opposition.  Elected officials campaigning have even changed their position on the matter for apparent political expediency.  The streetcar plan has been used as an ideological masquerade to create a cloud of political chaos through which no apparent resolution could possibly be reached given the structure of the laws at the state level.

The fact remains, no singular elected official at the city or county possesses the ability to alter the course of this issue, notwithstanding whether he or she supports or opposes the plan ideologically.  This author is unaware of any popular vehicle to use to stifle or immediately change the course of the VIA Transit Board, and its governmental authority, without taxpayers incurring an even greater expense/burden from doing so. So why is our local community so intrigued and exhaustively using so much political capital on this already decided matter that will proceed with funding, despite misinformed, after-the-fact ideology?

The Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity

The Koch Brothers and their Americans for Prosperity/Democracy Alliance/Freedom Partners SPAC support many varied causes, but they all have in common their self-interested assets in Koch Industries.  These include oil, energy, chemicals and financial products. They’ve actively lobbied to diminish regulations on potentially poisonous substances (e.g. dioxin, asbestos, benzene), and fought against any restrictions on carbon emissions. Their efforts go further in the financial sector by rebutting financial reform where their interests lie in the derivatives market—the investment vehicles that nearly collapsed the entire banking system, almost bringing this country to its knees in 2008.

David and Charles Koch are two politically active billionaires, each worth approximately $22 billion.  They are not from San Antonio, and until recently have not seemingly paid any attention to San Antonio, nor expressed any interest in local civic or community affairs. They are ultimately interested in themselves and influence at the highest echelons of government, to further enhance their own coffers. So once again, why are they so interested in a now irrelevant post-hoc debate about an issue that has already been decided by a VIA Transit Board created under state law?

Mayor Castro’s Rise and Judge Wolff’s Leadership

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff

Irrespective of whether your partisanship affiliation sways toward the adoration or vilification of Mayor Julián Castro, his accomplishments and accolades politically have been numerous throughout his entire life in public service here in San Antonio.

The same can be said for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s even lengthier career in public service entirely dedicated to the City of San Antonio. One thing that cannot be debated is their total commitment to our City.

Nevertheless, they are both Democrats, and the Koch brothers tend to disfavor Democratic candidates who seek office.

By all accounts, the trajectory of Mayor Castro is on course for Washington D.C., specifically 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It’s well established there is no love lost between The Koch Brothers and the Democratic Party, and in particular, the Obama Administration.

Mayor Castro, who gave the keynote address of the Democratic National Convention, on the other hand, is closely aligned with members of the administration and the Democratic Party at-large.

Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd gathered at La Fonda on Main to hear election night results. The Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd gathered at La Fonda on Main to hear election night results. The Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Given the Koch Brothers established track record of protecting their own self-interest, it hardly seems they would likely invest significant resources into fighting a local initiative that affects local constituents, if it did not somehow benefit them. But what they logically would be interested in doing is undermining or discrediting the reputation of local political figures that have national prospects of pursuing the highest level of elective politics: fodder to utilize a later point in time, if needed, at a level where there their potential for influence and reward is at its greatest.

This is in the case of Mayor Castro who awaits confirmation for his appointment to HUD, as well as his future prospects as he nudges toward the 2016 presidential ticket.  In the meantime, and even thereafter, they would like to use Judge Wolff as a test case for their sphere of influence, and making the unwitting public of San Antonio guinea pigs for their own little experiment.  Remember, in the end, who has been committed to our San Antonio, and who is remotely funding an effort that has little to do with anything else at this juncture, other than the pocketbooks of specially interested billionaires from another state?

Conclusion

The Koch Brothers, and the activation of their subterfuge called Americans for Prosperity, is an effort to perpetuate the streetcar debate, cloaked in, but not out of consideration for the hyper-local interests of our city and community as a whole.  Theirs is self-serving, much like virtually every other cause they’ve aligned themselves with.  As such, it becomes incumbent upon the voting public to become informed and acknowledge the motivations of their efforts to surreptitiously meddle in the community affairs of the City of San Antonio for political purposes on the national scale—a short term putsch to effectively divide our community as we enter a new era in San Antonio. This, at a time, where we are collectively being thrust into an even greater spotlight on the national stage: the long term objective on a playing field where special interest, and the Koch brothers, especially, have the most to gain.

Do we as citizens of San Antonio want to allow outsiders of our community to generate local political chaos, and steer our civic decisions within San Antonio, for a subject that cannot likely be resolved locally, and especially as it relates to state law?  If the answer is “no” let’s collectively move on toward tackling prospective issues we can effectively and immediately address now, and leave this ideological discussion outside the political arena, and certainly outside the Koch brothers sphere of influence.

If the answer is “yes” then let’s at least be honest about the legal realities of the matter, conversation itself, and the long term ulterior political implications of outside entities who choose to tamper in the local affairs of the city and community of San Antonio.  Furthermore, in the latter scenario, are we prepared to potentially sacrifice proven, effective leadership with a dedicated civic focus geared toward San Antonio, in exchange for potential candidates who espouse rhetoric about a past issue that’s continued to maintain traction, due, in large part, to the activism of special interest groups from outside our community?

This is not about whether you are a Republican or Democrat. This isn’t even about the streetcar project that’s already been decided under state law. This is about whether or not the San Antonio public wants to succumb to special interests from outside our city by groups who are maliciously toying with our community as though it’s their own personal political experiment.

Is this type of precedent we want to establish for our community in this new era of change in the City of San Antonio?

Related Stories:

City Sends Broadway ‘Complete Street’ Concept to VIA

San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System

The True Value of Streetcars in San Antonio

Streetcar Advocate Responds to Red McCombs

10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars

42 thoughts on “Billionaire Outsiders Take Special Interest in VIA Streetcar Plan

  1. I enjoyed the article and I wasn’t at all aware that this issue was already put to a vote and that vote passed and became a law. There are so many things happening that information slips by easily and I comment without that knowledge.

    In any case, if this whole thing is moving forward then there really isn’t any reason to fight it. I don’t care what we get as long as we get something. I am looking forward to more transportation options even if it does include street cars.

    About the Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity – You are incorrect to say that their actions are simply self-serving. In case you were not aware the brothers identify with conservatives, republicans and libertarians alike. Do you know that there are individuals here – in San Antonio – who at a moments notice will grab the “bat phone” and make a call to the people with money, to slow efforts like this?

    A lot of these types of individuals live in San Antonio and have opposed the street car project from the get-go. More than likely, they called the brothers and Americans for Prosperity and they had a talk. Do you know the people that oppose Toll lanes? Most of those people are against streetcars too.

    Also – just in case you didn’t know – Libertarians oppose all subsidies. I’m not saying this because I follow and agree with every line of the national libertarian party platform. I’m saying this because government subsidies bring more government control. The Koch Brothers feel the same way and they help.

    The fact is, in San Antonio we live in a city controlled by the Democratic Party. Most of our mayors have been Democrats. Almost all of the council districts are controlled by democrats. When, at some point, the libertarians, the conservatives, and some independents, need to fight efforts that increase the size of the government and there is no one else to lend a hand, there are groups that do. We don’t share an ideology but when things get rough, an enemy of our enemy can become our friend and at least we have a chance in the fight – even if that fight is over.

      • I’m a libertarian but I’m also an entrepreneur – and realistic. Elon Musk is the same way. He borrowed money from the Department of Energy and the NASA for two of his projects. Most people generally do things that are convenient for them. I am against government subsidies but that doesn’t mean I won’t borrow a loan from the Small Business Administration.

        Value is my motivation. Offering the most amount of good is a motivating factor for me so if that means crossing a few ideological lines then so be it.

        • Sorry about all of that! I meant to say that since the Koch Brothers have money they have more pull than most so it makes sense to reach out to them and the Americans for Prosperity.

          My point is that Americans for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers are supporting those sides of the fight. So far all that amounts to is newsletters, questionnaires, a parade float and a few group meetings.

          Look, it’s great that you know about Ayn Rand, Objectivism and rational self-interest. That’s cool! Rad! The thing you seem to be missing is that most (if not all) companies do the same thing. Facebook has their own lobbying firm for crying out loud! What about Monsanto?

          You’re making it into a Left vs Right debate. The whole article is about the Koch Brothers like you have an obsession of some sort. Also, What is with this idolizing of our Mayor and the Judge and contempt for the Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity? I don’t get it.

    • “Also – just in case you didn’t know – Libertarians oppose all subsidies.”

      Your condescending remark was unnecessary, David.

      It was also inaccurate.

      In your opinion, a true Libertarian would stand in opposition to the U.S.’ defacto “drive or fly” transportation policy – a policy which demands access to the taxpayers’ largesse.

      When you find a Libertarian who believes roadways and airways should be privately designed, constructed, operated and maintained, with no government assistance (or interference) whatsoever, please let us know.

  2. Looking at the Broadway leg of the proposed public transit from downtown to Pearl Parkway, it’s already obvious on the ground, before the first vehicle has made a trip, that re-development is blossoming. The same has already happened along the Fredricksburg Road corridor where the VIA Primo high speed bus has operated for more than a year between downtown and the Medical Area and beyond. These improvements in public transit are good for raising the fortunes of local businesses and property values for homeowners. As explained in Mr. Tucker’s article, the only argument against this plan is sleight-of-hand, a political power grab funded by outside interests with no stake in the city’s future.

    • Catherine, to your first point about development along Broadway, you are correct that it is occurring. But that development is actually a result of the investment in the Museum Reach and will continue regardless whether a streetcar operates or not.

      With regards to development along Fredericskburg as a result of VIA Primo, I have to ask what development are you referring two? I live just off Fredericksburg now and have lived in the area, off and on for the last 25 years, aside from my 3 years at the Vistana. I have not seen any additional development other than the very expensive Primo stops. Medical Center development is a result of other factors, not Primo. In fact, Primo was routed through that area because of the development, not to stimulate the development. Can you provide examples?

  3. In addition, The billionaire automobile-magnate Red McCombs is opposed to the streetcar plan. Just remember….one man, one vote.

  4. This piece has many flaws in it that will be addressed in a response at Bexar Left and Right, but to start with here, here are a couple of major flaws which shows the writer has not thoroughly researched the subject.

    First. the writer states “we are virtually the last major metropolitan city in this country that does not have such a mass-transit system available to commuters.” I’m not sure what “virtually” really means in this context, but that aside, the writer might look at Fort Worth, who started with a streetcar project and scrapped it after it discovered financial challenges with the overall system. That was in the past few years. There are other major metro areas to consider, but we’ll just leave it at that. BTW, BRT is also considered “mass transit” and San Antonio has instituted that, with project overruns.

    Secondly, to state that Americans for Prosperity is driving the opposition is a flat out false misrepresentation of the facts. Opposition started on many fronts by several groups when they discovered the challenges and overreach by VIA on this initiative. I, for one, have NO affiliation with the group mentioned, but the writer seems to ignore all those points, locking on a “Koch bashing” model that seems to fit his interests.

    The reality, after some deeper research, is that AFP is exploring taking up this issue when it discovered the disconnect between public sentiment and VIA’s intentions. When AFP found that VIA was ignoring public input, especially at public meetings, it decided to explore possibly engaging with the referendum initiative. In reality, AFP has not made a decision as to whether to engage or not. Some community members on both sides have overstated AFP’s involvement, but AFP has not committed anything more than just exploratory efforts.

    I’ll look at the other issues in a deeper analysis, but a cursory read of this piece merited responses on these two points.

    • This comment precisely illustrates my point in this article. The commentator fails to provide a shred of evidence rebutting the fact this matter has already been decided under state law, as well as the contention these groups have only been “possibly engaging” the referendum initiative. Proponents or opponents of the plan should view the actions of these post hoc debaters with great skepticism. Following this commentator’s suggestions at this juncture could potentially cost taxpayers millions of additional dollars in litigation. Do we want an already expensive VIA streetcar plan AND millions of additional dollars in court fees? If you don’t like the plan or it’s implementation the appropriate thing to do is write your state senator and representative about changing the transportation code.

      • Blayne, I stated two simple points of misinformation and you make the claim that I failed to invalidate your point about public vote. Frankly, the deflection is almost insulting to readers. If you can’t answer the direct assertions, then find another forum to speak.

        First point, you didn’t address the issue regarding the “last metropolitan city.” If you don’t have correct information, admit it and move on. If you do have facts to counter the claim, state them. Don’t deflect. It really undercuts your credibility.

        Secondly, you actually are the one that needs to provide more information on AFP’s involvement. You make a conjecture that AFP is investing significant resources into the streetcar discussion. In reality, they have sponsored a Flambeau float and are exploring whether to enter the discussion or not. If you have any credible evidence of “significant” investment, please enlighten us all.

        As I said, I’ll respond at length to your article at Bexar Left and Right (I don’t mind The Rivard Report reprinting it if they are interested). There are many points in your article that deserve rebuttal.

        To the point of vote, I think you misunderstand the referendum process of our city’s charter. Citizens can vote on anything, provided they collect the necessary signatures. Courts can decide the legal validity of the vote. The last time I checked, I don’t believe you are a district judge so I’ll leave the validity of the vote to the courts.

        With regards to the costs, let’s just say deferral of $8-12 million annual operating costs would be well worth the legal fees.

        • Your suggestion to find another forum puts me in a quandary. The publishers of this forum control the content, so, unless you are a publisher, moderator, or otherwise can facilitate the content in this thread, I fail to observe your authority to admonish and/or control the dialogue here.

          You completely mislead the audience here, when you talk about the “last metropolitan city.” In fact, I said: “virtually the last metropolitan city.” Virtually is defined as nearly, or almost. As a consequence, this leaves some allowance for exceptions to my assertion, in general. For you to disingenuously present what I actually stated above to others is tantamount to not only misrepresentation, but libel on its face.

          I never presented this notion that AFP is investing “significant resources” as an absolute fact. Your accusation that I did so is patently false.

          You grossly misunderstand and oversimplify the jurisdictional breakdown of where the forum of this controversy would convene. That being said, you are correct, I’m not a judge. However, I am an attorney, and can realistically comment on some of the repercussions of approaching an issue that’s already been administratively resolved.

          This is not a personal matter, by any stretch of the imagination, but the point of the article is that if you’re still arguing about it, you’re arguing a moot issue. And in this instance it’s either out of personal enjoyment, or, perhaps, your receipt of remuneration.

  5. This is rich! The level of hypocrisy is absurd. Very few conservatives in SA support this boondoggle-the Left Leaning Council is leading this charge. At this point, I believe that there is a MIS-information
    Campaign to confuse people on the issues. If the Koch brothers DID support it, the Crabs in a Bucket in SA would flip against the streetcar! I just have to laugh. Mass transit downtown is under utilized anyway. Does the City need a fancy new ride to inspire intra-Dowtown travel?

  6. You made a strong argument of how outsiders are cynically attempting to interject themselves into a local issue. You should have left it at that without the fawning over Mayor Castro and Judge Wolff. I am a big supporter of both and of the project. But there are people who are cool to both officials but are willing to look at the project objectively.

  7. Did you catch the hackneyed anti-transit article in the Express-News on June 5 from Mr. Randal O’Toole, the Founder and President of the American Dream Coalition, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and contributor to reports and events sponsored by Americans for Prosperity and other Koch-sponsored groups? Why in the world would someone with a background in forestry economics living in rural Oregon submit an article on streetcars to a newspaper 1,600 miles from home?

    • Bill, to answer your question about O’Toole’s contribution, he is a regular contributor on transportation issues. With regards to credibility, why would a mayor who has no background in transportation other than serving as a councilman or mayor be considered as a secretary of Transportation? I think your assertion is an unfair attack on O’Toole.

      But, with regards to his submission, O’Toole is a well known anti-urbanist who constantly attacks transit solutions. I would expect someone with a transit background already knowing that (turnabout, my friend). 🙂

      The op-ed is actually an adaptation of a more general op-ed he recently did for the Daily Caller. http://dailycaller.com/2014/06/03/light-rail-is-the-wrong-choice-for-cities/

      Going over his piece, there are several errors such as capacity that have been countered by The Oregonian in Politifact pieces. I really don’t consider O’Toole a good source for discussions on urban rail due to his anti-urbanist bias.

      But, that aside, it’s really no better than some of the generalizations I also read in a recent Rivard Report article on streetcar, especially dealing with some facts about transit in Portland.

      • ” I really don’t consider O’Toole a good source for discussions on urban rail due to his anti-urbanist bias.” I agree, Randy. My professional career in transportation began in 1970 with the U.S. Department of Transportation. I have worked for a transportation engineering firm, a transit management company, transit systems, the Dallas-Fort Worth MPO, and as independent consultant in transportation. I have an advanced degree. While Mr. O’Toole is obviously a bright fellow, to my knowledge he has neither transportation experience nor a college degree. He writes opinion papers based on his ideology.

  8. Blayne:

    Interesting piece. I appreciate your right to lay out your support and I hope you will do the same for others, including myself. Some of your comments above appear to debate through attack as opposed to honest and open disagreement.

    Full disclosure, I am helping to lead the streetcar signature petition drive. I am on the opposite side of this debate from you and while I disagree with your assessment, I am in full support of your right to have a voice. I believe you should do the same for those you disagree with and that includes allowing them to have a voice through referendum or petition if required.

    In your piece, you take to Koch brothers/Americans for Prosperity bashing to make your point. For your information, you couldn’t be any more off base. Since I am deeply involved in this campaign to collect signatures, I want to be as clear as possible. As I am typing this response, Americans for Prosperity has not give one single penny to the PAC overseeing the collection effort. It is funded by local sources and groups. Period. If you don’t believe that, I can share the bank deposits with you.

    In any event, raising the specter of the “subterfuge called Americans for Prosperity” may help you get more page views, but in reality it is so off base that its comical. I cannot tell you what drives AFP or the Koch brothers. I do know they are single issue oriented and are very particular about where they invest their resources. When I became more involved with this effort, we made a concerted effort to work towards our goals as professionally as possible and that included ensuring our financing was in place. At this time, AFP is not involved and I am sorry if that ruins your conspiracy theory, but its true.

    AFP may be involved in different issues in the future and in doing so, they are well within their legal rights. I hope you paint the same broad strokes at other groups doing similar work, Blayne. That would include Battleground Texas, George Soros, and countless other entities that focus on particular hot topic items. In fact, Battleground Texas is a front to upend Republican and Conservative ideals throughout the State of Texas. They make no bones about doing exactly what you are complaining AFP is doing. Where is the disdain for that?

    In any event, you make several points worth consideration. I am not an attorney, I am a citizen unhappy with the direction of our community. I couldn’t possibly debate you on the legal precedents you cite. I will leave that for others to engage. What I will tell you is much more simple.

    People collecting signatures trying to have their voice heard shouldn’t be disregarded as a nuisance or waste of time. Sometimes, its the only voice the people have. Laws were made to be challenged and times change. A single issue can change a community if enough people believe in it and work hard to make it happen. We should be embracing that and not stifling engagement.

    If it ends up in court, so be it. I personally don’t how that works for VIA or our City Council from a political or public relations perspective , but its a distinct possibility. It didn’t work for Applewhite in the 90’s, and the citizen opposition prevailed, but maybe today is different.

    Long response to your article, but I wanted to make sure that folks had some truth sprinkled in with the opinion piece.

    Greg

    • Greg, what “direction” are you so worried about San Antonio heading anyway? A direction that means people will have more options to get around the community? A direction that allows vulnerable residents like the elderly or visually impaired to have greater access this part of the city? A direction that takes even a few cars off the road, so that those who can’t take the streetcar have it a little easier behind the wheel? A direction that helps fuel the revitalization of formerly abandoned or underutilized land rather than plowing over agricultural or ecologically sensitive property? A direction that provides centralized housing options for the two largest generations in U.S. history who have stated in survey after survey that they want to live in walkable neighborhoods with the option to give up car ownership?

      Look, I understand transit like the streetcar isn’t popular among everyone. Change is rarely welcomed by all. But I find it hard to swallow when I hear that neighbors are actively petitioning against the type of project that will open doors for many locals here, not to mention the revenue it will help generate by tourists when they use the system. We have put cars first for decades, at levels of subsidy far greater than most people realize. The automobile is not a one-size-fits-all, and it’s time that San Antonio catch up to this fact.

      So again, I have to ask: what is the big objection that would continue to thwart the progress of this city?

      • Chris, your comments are thoughtful and I respect your feedback. I will be frank with you as I attempt to be respectful of the goals you outlined, but this may come across as tough to hear. In my opinion, our city leadership has led us down a path of debt and wasteful spending. To me, its a matter of priorities and returning our city government to the core tasks of basic city services first. Unfortunately, streetcar is not one of those items. It serves few, is a special project catering to a very small portion of San Antonio, and offers little in the way of solving our long term transportation problems across all of Bexar County.

        Bottom line is we are a huge community of about 1.4 million people. The great majority, probably 95% plus simply don’t want to live downtown under any circumstances (granted that’s anecdotal from my city wide campaign and political work.) The stories our elected leadership and a small minority of the public tries to paint about millenials, the Decade of Downtown, and SA2020 are more about building resumes for future office and power plays for the downtown development community, than about true community development.

        The opposition is overwhelming in San Antonio against streetcar. However, a majority of City Council doesn’t listen and you have an unelected board at VIA saying they supersede the authority of the local leaders who appointed them. Its out of control in the opinion of a majority of San Antonio residents.

        It is my opinion that a small group of elected officials and community leaders have exercised the agenda around San Antonio for a very long time without much opposition. They were elected by an embarrassingly small portion of our community or they have been building their clout through campaign donations and lobbying for years. In any event, they don’t represent how most of San Antonio feels. Unfortunately, people don’t vote and we get exactly what deserve and that’s leadership that pays zero attention.

        So, the community is answering in kind with this petition drive. Chris, it is well within the rights of any group to say enough is enough. I am sorry if it offends those in the minority, but there is nothing wrong with exercising rights that are clearly enumerated as law.

        I am with you on the core services you talk about. Especially care for seniors and access for the visually and physically impaired. Streetcar doesn’t answer those problems. I am also with you on walkable communities. We probably have more in common than you would think. In fact, I am not against streetcar or light rail as part of a long term transportation strategy. I just see it as the wrong project at the wrong time. We need to prioritize better and be humble with our precious tax dollars.

        Sorry to kill your senses with a long reply!

        • Greg, thanks for your reply and for being respectful in a place where many are not. I will say first that I support your right to petition against any cause you feel led to. That being said, I feel the need to respond to some of the things you bring up.

          For starters, many transit opponents like to use the ‘debt and wasteful spending’ argument you use; however, this is possibly the weakest argument considering every un-tolled road built in San Antonio—and the rest of America for that matter—is built and operated on substantial subsidy. Quite frankly, we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that either roads pay for themselves (they don’t) or that somehow roads are more worthy infrastructure than transit. Until voters allow themselves to be tolled to use every road they use, or we move over to a vehicle-miles-traveled fee that truly reflects the hidden costs that drivers incur (both of which are politically unpopular, I know), then this rationale simply doesn’t hold.

          In regards to your argument that streetcar only serves a few, what other infrastructure doesn’t do this at some level? If you build water or sewer service to a cul-de-sac, are you not serving but a handful of households? Heck, building the cul-de-sac itself is infrastructure that only serves a handful of households, since other neighborhood traffic can’t use it to access any other places. How is that type of infrastructure any less of a special project? Building and maintaining infrastructure is a basic service that municipalities provide, and to say that every bit of it efficiently serves the most residents possible simply doesn’t work when we allow the city to spread over 465 square miles. By definition, developing more infrastructure and more housing in the urban core offers quite a bit to the city as a whole. Let me be clear: long-term transportation problems in Bexar County will not be solved by simply adding more lanes to our roads. This has never worked in any city, anywhere. The only way to do this effectively is to create alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle travel. This not only includes transit (like the streetcar), but also creating housing close to jobs and retail, so that residents don’t have to travel far to work. It also includes walking, biking, carpooling, etc. This sort of planning is a win-win for suburban motorists and urban transit users alike.

          To your assertion that 95 percent don’t want to live downtown, there is no way this is true. For starters, already more than 8 percent of the city’s residents live in Council District 1. This number is growing all the time, as residential projects go up all along Broadway, Southtown, and the surrounding neighborhoods. As I mentioned in my last reply, more surveys continue to reveal a desire to live in walkable, compact communities (not necessarily the central business district), and this is especially true for Boomers and Millennials, the two largest generations alive today. Have you checked the occupancy rates at some of these central properties, like Can Plant or Cevallos Lofts? I realize this preference doesn’t hold true for everyone, and perhaps the desire for urban living isn’t as strong in San Antonio as it would be in Austin or Boston, but I hardly think some “great majority” would rather remain out at the periphery of town. In some cases you’ll find that households are living in the suburbs because there aren’t enough viable (read: affordable) alternatives in a more central location. I wouldn’t expect your campaign work to reveal this data anyway; you are looking specifically for signatures opposing the streetcar, after all.

          When it comes to issues of elected officials, unelected boards, and so on, I won’t pretend to know a lot about those things. Yes, voter turnout for local elections is embarrassingly low (as it is in any locality), and yes, politicians are self-serving (as they are in any locality). I certainly don’t think either of these are reasons to kill a project that actually makes sense as a starting point for this city. We can’t afford to build a transit project that serves the entirety of San Antonio at once, but we have to start in a place where it stands a chance of being successful and allows for future expansion. Unlike the battle that’s happening in Austin right now over its proposed urban rail route, San Antonio’s proposed streetcar actually shows promise.

          So, I’m not sure what makes this the wrong project at the wrong time, and what you think would be a better priority for our “precious tax dollars.”

          • How did you take the argument from one about Streetcars to another about Toll Roads and state infrastructure? These substantial subsidies you speak of are what exactly? Federal funds make up only half of all funds used for infrastructure. That’s not substantial and it’s very irrelevant to his point.

            I believe that the debt and wasteful spending argument is still very relevant. He is referring to wasteful spending at the municipal level. That has nothing to do with state or federal spending especially when you talk about street cars. VIA still has not asked for federal dollars for this project.

    • This is not a piece intended to proffer support or opposition one way or another, but rather to elucidate some of the legal realities that serve as a background to this ongoing discussion.

      I fully support your right to assert yourself 100%. Furthermore, this also extends to the freedom of speech of all others who support and oppose this initiative, but that’s not the point of this article. Nor is this about attacking any particular special interest such as yours, but the issue itself: the streetcar project. As far as these other special interest groups you reference, they are not part of this specific issue, as far as I know.

      I accept you conceding to my legal analysis “as is” and as such also note your assessment that if it “ends up in court so be it”. Accordingly, I find this deeply disturbing as a fiscal conservative tending to side with the Republican point of view on many issues. In this case, and as Republican candidates for office have made clear, it’s the street car that’s been expedited to the top of major issues in the race for County Judge. Therefore, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to support this line of reasoning when as you tacitly admit, opposing the initiative (e.g. petition, referendum) will only likely result in further expense to the taxpayers. What happened to fiscal conservatism, especially as it pertains to city and county politics? At this point, you’re making the Democratic party seem more fiscally wise than the platform most moderates hold near and dear. This just doesn’t make sense when taken to it’s logical conclusion. And since you are willing to move forward with this movement, at any cost, where do you draw the line? How many millions of dollars in legal expenses paid for by taxpayers are you willing to accrue before calling it quits? Please clarify.

      I invite you to collect petitions as long as you please, but in the end, I would urge you, to gain a better grip of the legal processes, and the long term effect of your actions as you do so.

      At this point, it’s all but ironic to see Republican support for a movement that has such wasteful implications to taxpayer dollars.

      • I don’t understand. What expenses to tax-payers will we see if the petition moves ahead? What is the difference between that expense and the expense we will be seeing if the streetcar plan moves forward and only a handful of millennials, visitors and retired people use the system?

        It’s a bet, right? We’re betting that this streetcar thing is going to bring us one step further to increasing economic prosperity. I think that’s the goal anyway.

        What if it doesn’t work? It will result in the loss of millions of dollars and barely used infrastructure.

        We’re dealing with a hypothetical situation. We don’t know if this is going to work or not. Some of us have faith that it will. Some of us don’t. I personally believe if you bring something like mass transit then the local business community, people like me, are going to have fun with it and make it their own.

        The people at the Pearl, the people downtown, the people all along the street car route, hopefully, will make it better. The streetcar’s success depends on all of us. I believe we can do it.

        The problem I keep hearing is that this will only create a divide among the financially well off and the less fortunate. If VIA is for those who depend on transportation not because they care about the environment but because they don’t have a car then what class will the streetcar favor? This is one concern.

        • It’s not an issue of either/or, but rather the fact we could face years of litigation over the validity of these laws, if competing governmental entities fight the state-sanctioned VIA Transit Board’s decision. Worst case scenario, for example, the petition gains enough signatures, city charter is amended, and VIA still pursues eminent domain proceedings in order to make this happen: it’s within their power to do so thanks to the Texas Transportation Code. Then, taxpayers are not only on the hook for cost of the streetcar project but the prosecution AND defense of the action leading up to the point of resolution. And yes, at the end of the day we will still likely have a streetcar. Again, this issue has already been decided. Debating the pros and cons of this matter doesn’t make any sense at this juncture. Blame the Texas State legislature: make them change the laws. They are the ones who conferred this authority to the VIA Transit Board. That’s the bottom line.

          If you want to construe this streetcar project as a bet, then yes, but the chips are already down. The bet cannot be pulled back at this point in time. The reality is the funding has been approved and it’s going to move forward. Regardless of the outcome, the bet has already been placed, the law is in effect, so we have to see what happens as a result. There’s no going back.

          Furthermore, any effort to pull the bet back at this juncture will only result in more cost, at the expense of the taxpayer. It’s fiscally irresponsible to subject the taxpayers to an additional burden for an issue that’s already been legally decided.

  9. In this case, a democratic/progressive/socialist/whatever is pushing the agenda that conservatives/libertarians/tea party/whatever is doing x and y against z. Man I hate politics.

  10. To all of the street car supporters: I am glad that the VIA fiasco has allegedly been put to rest…
    To all of the project opponents: I think that our tourists will use this conveyance because it will be a novelty. Unfortunately, those of us with a little foresight see it not as a novelty but, instead as a traffic nucience that will disrupt the flow of downtown traffic and businesses forced to endure construction on already crowded and narrow streets. I will never ride on one of these gridlock creators. My suggestion to those who were denied their say about what occurs in their city, (no vote), is to not patronize what you disagree with. #DontridethestreetcarsSA.

  11. Blayne,
    Thank you for writing this article–I’m glad someone finally brought this up in a public forum. I agree with you wholeheartedly and it’s difficult for me to read some of the nay-saying comments from readers above due to “traffic creation” and “the stories leaders tried to paint about millennials”. I digress.

    The one thing I feel is missing from the conversation and I’d like someone to expose (although irrelevant because the decision has already been made), is the mislead opposition of the SA firefighters. Disclaimer: I appreciate everything our firefighters do for the community. But, I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering for unrelated political campaigns, and there were paid firefighters soliciting petition signatures at every poll location during local and primary run-off elections. Several of them that I spoke to admitted that they didn’t really care about the streetcar, they were getting paid to be out there. By their union, I suppose? Not sure if AFP contributed to that. I’m interested to know though.

    The other firefighters, who were genuinely opposing the streetcar while gathering signatures, were doing so because they believed the streetcar project is directly related to firefighters losing their benefits and pensions. Obviously this is ridiculous for a multitude of reasons, but people were signing the petition in droves on the premise of supporting fire fighters. I would like someone to publish an article dedicated to clearing up that inaccuracy.

  12. Maybe I missed it but where is the supporting evidence that the Koch brothers are against the streetcar?

    Also, just because other cities have streetcars doesn’t mean we should. There isn’t currently a problem getting around downtown and there won’t be unless more businesses happen to move downtown. With occupancy rates near 39% for downtown buildings where is the need?

    What is wrong with our trolley system or our bus system or for that matter our taxi system?

    For the record I don’t believe in the build it and they will come mentality.

    Finally while it is important for people to be aware about what’s going on in there city. With one that is as big as ours unless the city markets things that need to be voted on how do you hope to get an informed public.

    • There are plenty of examples, but let’s just start with Rachel’s comment above about firefighters, seemingly indifferent to the actual petition itself, being paid to collect signatures from an unsuspecting public who think the signatures are somehow related firefighter pay and pensions. This dubious tactic itself is not only disingenuous, but outright deceptive.

      But frankly, you’re missing the point entirely and getting sucked back into a moot debate about an issue that, again, has already been decided by a VIA Transit Board created under state law. Whether you support or oppose the streetcar the public needs to be aware this petition circulated with the full support of supposed fiscal conservative candidates under less than honorable circumstances, can potentially have the effect of costing taxpayers millions more just to pursue litigiously. How do you reconcile the behavior of a candidate who calls himself a fiscal conservative on one hand, yet fully supports political maneuvering, irrelevant of the rights of the people, that could cost taxpayers so much more money? It just doesn’t make any sense.

      I’m not sure about how the remaining aspects of your comment at all pertain to the issues above, but especially as it relates to this VIA Transit Board who has great administrative authority under Texas state law. Again, if you do not like the manner in which the Transportation Code is written under Texas STATE law, then the public should petition the state legislature (i.e. state reps and senators) to change the law itself.

  13. Any reader here play SIM City (the old EA game)? Not that it was a great model for planning (yes, I am dating a planner). But the essence was very clear: start small, let your small efforts with minimal cost bare all the fruit their going to, then upgrade. Jumping from high-way to BRT to streetcar is putting us on the intercontinental ballistic commuter flights by 2030. We missed a step: bicycling! Look a all the other major cities you are pointing at, and you don’t notice just how great their bike system is. NY, Chicago, London, Paris, Barcelona, Vancouver, Tokyo: they all share something besides an expanse of rail: great bike systems and interesting places to see on a walk. For the cost of one mile of light rail, we could have dedicated lanes THROUGHOUT 410. For that same investment, you could enable the four corners (one at a time) beyond 410. Six or so years ago I called up the director of the MPO and asked about the old light rail proposal: “are you expecting the ridership from the neighborhoods?” He replied “No, we expect the ridership from the neighborhoods once they dense-ify their housing.” That was a frank answer. No, this is not for us here, now. It is for the import who comes to us years from now. There is no data supporting rail as a congestion reliever. By itself, it cannot move the needle (see DART). Centro San Antonio brought in Speck three months ago, and he showed two things: 1. Historically street cars were paid for by private developers to expand into green-fields (not developed neighborhoods) and this was the effect in little Portland with their modern line (additionally, Portland has been spending $1M a year for 20 years on bike infrastructure)… 2. A street car is a pedestrian accelerator, not a substitute for a car you have in the garage at home. As most of our streets are unwalkable (power poles, whole-block curbcuts, monoculture tenants) then who are the street cars going to accelerate? Let’s spend this vast wealth on lasting, low maintenance infrastructure that’ll help us to get more active, live more locally, and be more socially fair.

    • I appreciate your point of view, however, again the issue has already been decided, so debating the merits of the plan is extraneous to where we stand now. Where we go from here is simple: move forward with the already decided plan OR risk millions in additional cost to taxpayers in order to fight the plan and still have it nonetheless. The pros and cons of the plan itself are immaterial to the reality we now face.

      Again, and if you’re an opponent to the plan, your grievances should be addressed to your state representative and senator to change the Transportation Code in this state that confers the decision-making authority on the VIA Transit Board.

  14. “I’m not sure what ‘virtually’ really means in this context…”

    It probably means that, had he not qualified his statement, he’d have been asked to define the phrase “major metropolitan city.”

    “…the writer might look at Fort Worth, who started with a streetcar project and scrapped it after it discovered financial challenges with the overall system.”

    Actually, that’s not an accurate representation of what transpired. I was there – and testified at the public hearing.

    Fort Worth’s streetcar study was to be completed in three phases. The entire consulting package was pre-paid.

    There was an agreement in place requiring the city to proceed with the street railway project if that study indicated their proposal met defined criteria. Since the first two phases of the study painted a very positive picture, the opposition became quite nervous and requested a final vote for council approval prior to the study’s completion.

    Fort Worth’s city council killed the study before it was finished – and that’s why their streetcar project was scrapped.

    “There are other major metro areas to consider, but we’ll just leave it at that.”

    Uhhh…O.K.

    “…BRT is also considered ‘mass transit’ and San Antonio has instituted that, with project overruns.”

    Yet “B.R.T.” is not rail-based and, by using infrastructure already established for other roadway vehicles, remains relatively unthreatening. In fact, by offering tacit support for bus-based initiatives (especially ones which have been cosmetically altered to appear as light rail vehicles), the most virulent anti-train crusader can disguise his true motives.

    Isn’t it interesting that many of those who oppose San Antonio’s streetcar plan offer buses decorated as “trolleys” as their alternative?!

    “…to state that Americans for Prosperity is driving the opposition is a flat out false misrepresentation of the facts.”

    There’s a profound difference between “driving the opposition” and being the ultimate source of all opposition. Individuals may indeed possess individual opinions; still, well-organised opposition often requires capital, which grassroots organisations rarely have in abundance.

    Garl Boyd Latham

    • I’m sorry; I was attempting a reply to Randy Bear and his post of June 8th – and ended up down here!

      I don’t mean to be any more confusing than usual!

      Garl

  15. As a resident of Bexar County my greatest wish is that we spend greater energy developing a robust transportation system that our city desperately needs rather than the energy that is used to oppose it. As the writer has so eloquently stated, we the taxpayers will undoubtedly foot the bill spent fighting the individuals who are selfishly looking out for their own self interest . Our city needs a modern and extensive public transportation system and it has to start somewhere.

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