A rideshare pilot program that would allow transportation network companies (TNCs) Uber and Lyft to operate in San Antonio is currently being developed by City and TNC officials. Members of both teams are optimistic that a deal will be reached and voted on by City Council this summer, but questions about background check legitimacy still loom over the process.

Meanwhile, the Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) is also preparing to go before City Council some time in September to seek financial backing for the commuter rail line and freight rail relocation between San Antonio and Austin. The biggest obstacle for the $2-3 billion LSRD projects is just that – funding – and so far, San Antonio is one of the last major cities along the proposed route that has not made an agreement to contribute to the cost.

As SA Tomorrow, the city’s massive long-term planning initiative, is collecting public input for its Multimodal Transportation Plan, San Antonio is abuzz with talk of transportation from high-speed mass transit to bicycle infrastructure as the city attempts to plan for and estimated influx of 1 million new residents by 2040.

SA Next attendees enjoy Alamo Beer and other refreshments before the event. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Build San Antonio Green (BSAG), as part of its new urbanism event series SA Next, brought Uber San Antonio General Manager Henry Carr, LSRD Rail Director Joseph Black, and Bike World Manager Eddie Martinez together Thursday night to discuss their respective modes of transportation and how they will, ultimately, play parts in San Antonio’s transportation strategy.

City to Discuss Rideshare Pilot on Aug. 13

The event space at Geekdom erupted with applause when Carr said he was glad to be back in town. Rideshare companies ceased operations in San Antonio when a new ordinance went into effect in April that Uber and Lyft representatives said were too onerous to comply with. Uber’s ride-hailing mobile application has since been activated in suburban cities like Windcrest, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, and Hollywood Park. Lyft’s app is closed in all of Bexar County.

“We’re working hard to figure out a deal,” Carr said after his presentation. “We’re helping (Mayor Ivy Taylor) as much as we can.”

In June, Mayor Taylor asked City Manager Sheryl Sculley, staff, and Councilmember Roberto Treviño to develop the framework for operating agreements that would allow TNCs to operate for a pilot period.

The main hang up in current negotiations is the issue of background checks. The City officials, including the San Antonio Police Department, want fingerprint background checks performed before a driver, who drive their personal vehicles, picks up a fare. Uber and Lyft representatives say that those would be redundant to their own third-party background checks.

“Uber’s smartphone app already includes safety features that protect riders and driver partners before, during and after a trip in ways that others cannot,” Uber spokesperson Debbee Hancock stated in an email.

As a compromise, Uber confirmed that the City has proposed that drivers have the option of taking the City’s background check and be rewarded with recognition of this extra check on their profile for riders to see. Hancock said Uber would not accept such an agreement.

“We have made a lot of progress in our discussions with the city, but this is one proposal we cannot accept because it will do nothing to enhance public safety. We are hopeful we can finalize an agreement in the near future that incorporates all the other safety initiatives we have developed with the city,” she stated.

However, talks have not broken down.

“The bottom line is they want to be here and we want them here,” Treviño said. While he declined to comment on negotiation details, he was confident that an agreement will be made soon.”We’re working within the framework to find something fair for all rideshare companies (not just Uber).”

Lone Star Rail District to Get Council Consideration in September

LSRD Rail Director Joseph Black talks about the $2-3 billion commuter rail project. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

While there is little opposition to the idea of a commuter rail line (the LSTAR) between San Antonio and Austin, the City takes serious pause when confronted with the yearly costs of operation and maintenance.

But there are no tax or fee increases on the table, Black explained. “And we have not asked any city to make a dollar commitment.”

Instead, LSRD has been working with municipalities to form Transportation Infrastructure Zones (TIZ) unique to each city. The zone would establish a perimeter around each station – there are five proposed so far in San Antonio – and a percentage of property tax increases within the zone would go directly towards LSRD’s operation and maintenance costs.

Where are these property tax increases coming from? The stations themselves, as the property value surrounding them will, almost certainly, rise as the amenity comes to the neighborhood. Most agreements, like the one with San Marcos, also includes a sales tax revenue contribution. Austin City Council approved a 56-year agreement, with commitment stipulations, in December 2013.

LSRD is currently working with City staff on an agreement unique to San Antonio, but will likely have the same elements of agreements with other cities, Black said. The cities of Kyle, Buda, and Round Rock have yet to draft final agreements. Georgetown, New Braunfels, and Shertz city councils will likely vote on final agreements in August. Once local agreements are met, LSRD will be hunting for investment from federal, state, and private entities to foot the $2-3 billion bill for the commuter and freight lines. Once the Environmental Impact Statements are complete, and the new freight line relocation is complete, then work can begin on the commuter rail.

If all goes as planned, Black said, the LSTAR will begin trips in 2021 or 2022 – about 17 years in the making.

Interstate 35 is one of the most congested interstate segments in the U.S., most of which is because of commuter and truck traffic. About 80% of Mexico’s trade with the U.S. and Canada comes through the bottleneck on I-35. More than 9,000 accidents occur between San Antonio and Georgetown, the LSTAR’s northernmost stop, resulting in about 100 deaths per year.

“The LSTAR could provide the (transportation) equivalent of eight additional highway lanes (four lanes in each direction),” Black said. “The space implications are huge — moving more vehicles isn’t going to do it, we have to move people.”

The 118-mile commuter line would utilize existing Union Pacific lines, but not until after a new freight line is constructed in the east – a critical step for the LSTAR operation. While local freight will still use the old line through San Antonio, regional freight will be diverted to the new line, freeing up time and space for the LSTAR to provide reliable, frequent trips. 

We use the word “commuter line” to generally describe the LSTAR, but passengers will also be using it to get to events: Austinites to a Spurs game, San Antonians to SXSW, Texas State University students to a lecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Between UTSA, TSU, the Texas A&M University system, and community colleges, thousands of students would be connected to a network of higher education and job opportunities.

Black said there will also be consideration for bicycles on the LSTAR. Connecting the stations to transportation options that complete that “first mile/last mile” portion of travel – like bikes, bikeshare, rideshare, or bus transit to get to final destinations.

Bike World Manager Eddie Martinez talks about the need for bike safety awareness and infrastructure in San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick

The event left many people imagining multimodal transportation routes. Take a San Antonio B-cycle from your neighborhood to the downtown LSTAR station, ride to Austin, take a cab to a concert, take an Uber back, catch the LSTAR back in time for a good night’s sleep.

“This lecture series is something we’re very proud of because it has always been part of our dream to go beyond buildings,” said BSAG Executive Director Anita Ledbetter. BSAG partnered with CPS Energy, Alamo Beer, Geekdom, Do210, and Local 782 for the new urbanism series. This is the third SA Next event and more are planned for the rest of the year.

“There’s not going to be one (environmental) solution, we all need options,” Ledbetter said. “We wanted to provide a platform for them all.”

*Featured/top image: Uber San Antonio General Manager Henry Carr (right) speaks as LSRD Rail Director Joseph Black (left), and Bike World Manager Eddie Martinez look on. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Iris Dimmick

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

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