Tuesday morning the VIA board heard the recommendation from streetcar planners regarding the proposed routes for modern streetcar in the city, expected to be completed by 2017.

According to Vianna Davila, transportation reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, Alternative 6 was recommended as the proposed route to the board.

This route is the longest, most expensive, has the highest maintenance cost, and supposedly would have the highest ridership of all the routes. It also completely bypasses the Convention Center and most of the core of downtown, making it more of a challenge for visitors to use when attending a convention or just visiting the city.

Proposed VIA Modern Streetcar route, Alternative 6.

Regardless of which route it takes, in my opinion, San Antonio is not ready for the cost and expense of a modern streetcar.

That’s not to say I’m opposed to modern streetcar for San Antonio in the future. In fact, as the urban core continues to develop and the city follows the pattern most major urban cities do of implosion, both streetcar and light rail will make lots of sense in the future. The growth of downtown will drive the need, as it should, for such an investment.

San Antonio still lacks the density needed for this type of investment. Even if you factor in the development at the Pearl and some of the development around Blue Star (which the line does not service), and include several points in between, it still doesn’t reach adequate density to support the line’s annual maintenance cost.

VIA Streetcar in Alamo Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

That’s a key factor to consider when looking at the addition of this line to VIA’s operating assets. VIA barely gets by each year just trying to keep the buses running on city streets. It’s one of the most underfunded public transit systems in Texas, forced into the situation long ago when its tax rate was established at .5% instead of 1% rate used in the other major Texas cities. VIA has been able to augment that miserly rate with Advanced Transportation District (ATD) dollars, but those are restricted and cannot be used for something like streetcar maintenance, as best as I can tell.

This week, the Express-News published stories by Davila that examined other streetcar systems in Seattle and Tampa. She also weighed the pros and cons of the proposed routes here, as directed by VIA, and compared San Antonio to both Seattle and Tampa. While there is development potential along the Alternative 6 route, it’s unrealized at the present time, and, unless VIA imposes a TIRZ along the route to extract tax dollars from that investment, it will never realize the benefit of investment in its own coffers.

Finally, there is one other important reason why San Antonio is not ready for modern streetcar or any other rail option. San Antonio and VIA have yet to work out a proper funding model to construct the system and then sustain it. Under the current proposal, funding is still $70 million short of goal and that doesn’t even take into account cost overruns, which are likely with an accelerated construction schedule.

Looking up the road at another Texas city contemplating rail options, Austin seems better suited to light rail or a streetcar system than San Antonio. Austin has the right mix of urban residential and business development in a corridor that runs from the north end of the UT campus through the State Capitol complex and into the downtown business/residential district. Austin has been planning for the day for quite awhile, under the guise of the Urban Rail project.

Anyone who has travelled to Austin can see that potential, looking at the numerous residential high rises dotting the downtown area, many of which are anchored around the Second Street District. Continuing northward, the State Capitol is also considering new development in an effort to consolidate more government offices on state-owned land around the Capitol. Finally, with the growth on and around the UT campus, residential student housing continues to expand.

A crowded bus stop on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

All of this development is happening WITHOUT a rail system in place. In other words, whereas San Antonio is a rail system looking for development, Austin is development looking for a rail system. That’s a mix that lends itself to increased ridership and a sustainable business model.

While the need exists for a system in Austin, CapMetro has been cautious about moving too fast without testing the demand. Instead of spending millions of dollars on full-fledged system like San Antonio, it’s invested in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to follow the same route path as the proposed rail system. That allows CapMetro to measure real demand along given routes before making any commitment, and at the same time, provide rail-like service through a BRT system.

What makes this approach so appealing is that Austin’s BRT system will cost a fraction of what a comparable rail system would cost. With a price tag of $47 million, the BRT is being built at a fraction of our modern streetcar system at $280 million, and our current BRT, built for $66.7 million. Yet the level of service Austin will be getting far exceeds San Antonio’s BRT, as I pointed out in an article in Plaza de Armas.

Even reading VIA CEO Jeff Arndt’s response to my article, it’s evident VIA tries to mask the reduction in service by BRT. Arndt tried to explain that VIA Primo has more stops than I had originally placed in my assessment. What Arndt didn’t say was the extra stops were really just repurposing of the former 91 bus line to Primo stops. VIA just changed the numbers on the stops and called them Primo investment.

Looking at the overall picture and the current state of VIA and San Antonio, I cannot support a modern streetcar system in this economic climate. The city isn’t ready for such a system and VIA is financially incapable of supporting one. That’s not to say it can’t happen in the future, but San Antonio is not ready now.

If you’d like to have a say about VIA’s decision, a public meeting will be held Sept. 18th at 6 p.m. at the VIA Metro Center, 1021 San Pedro Ave. (I had to find the time from another source since VIA neglected to put it in their press release). During this meeting, presentations will be made, the public can interact one on one with VIA officials, but no public comment will be taken.*

The VIA Board of Trustees will vote on the proposed routes at their Sept. 24 meeting.

*Update at 12:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Sept. 18 meeting as a “hearing.”   

Randy Bear is a 20-plus years  San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic and political activities, including work with San Antonio Sports, KLRN, Keep San Antonio Beautiful, and Fiesta San Antonio. Randy’s political life took root when several friends from Arkansas pulled him into the first Clinton presidential campaign. Since then, he’s been active in politics and government, including a brief period serving on the staff of former City Councilman Reed Williams. 

This story has been republished, with permission, from Bear’s blog “Concerned Citizens” at www.concernedinsa.com.

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Randy Bear

Randy Bear is a 20-plus years San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic...

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