San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System

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VIA Streetcar/Trolley in Alamo Plaza

VIA Trolley in Alamo Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Randy_BearTuesday 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.

Streetcar, alt 6, July 2013

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/Trolley in Alamo Plaza

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.

VIA transit buses on Houston Street.

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.

public meeting sign

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


Related Stories:

 The Case for the Chavez Streetcar Route

Take Your Pick: The Latest Alternative Streetcar Routes

Another Turn of the Wheel for VIA’s Proposed Streetcar Project

A RR Primer: VIA’s Modern Streetcar Plans

Transportation and Public Health: An Urbanist Conundrum

Out Of Town Attack on Streetcars

VIA Primo Service: Mixed Reviews From Residents

Clean Air, Clean Technology Take Hold in South Texas

Journey to the Center of the Sustainable Earth

42 thoughts on “San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System

  1. San Antonio only seems to revisit streetcars when gas approaches 4 bucks. Until the love affair with driving to work solo (me included) reverses itself, there are others areas all that money can be spent…just not the time yet!

  2. I have yet to hear a sound argument as to why what is basically a bus on a fixed track is a better alternative to a bus on a rubber tire. Fixed rails allow no adustments in routes after the fact in the case that ridership demand differs from planning assumptions.

    For far less than the amount they want to spend on a rail system, they could buy a fleet of new hybrid-electric busses (which are quieter and more efficient), increase scheduling, add dedicated bus lanes and “superstops” in certain areas to speed travel and loading times, and still have plenty of money left over to double the number of b-cycles and bike lanes through downtown.

    I think the board should vote against unless the cost-benefit of a rail system is compared against an alternative as described above.

    • Certainly, I’ll explain. The nice hybrid bus you mentioned currently cost $600,000-$700,000 per bus (LA just paid $600,000 and Greensboro paid $714,000 for new buses) again, per bus. You need several buses per route. Say you want one per hour, your minimum bus purchase is going to be about five. So lets just figure five. In reality, you would probably need more like eight. With five you are looking at $3,570,000. Over the life span of a bus, you estimate that you will generally need to replace one or two so add another $1,428,000.

      This is the cost of running five buses on a route without maintenance, gas, upkeep anything. Just the bus. Bare minimum service for ten years. Just paying for the buses, you are looking at $4,998,000. No repairs, no back up buses – no gas, no electricity – just the bus. Realistically, you are looking at about triple that, because of repairs and needing more buses to fill in when another is in the shop. So $14,994,000 is more realistic.

      Problem is – in general a lot of people avoid buses, so they are rarely ever at capacity. Streetcars because they are smooth and more novel multiply your capacity x5. They are longer and fit more people, but also more people are willing to get on them. Again, we are just talking about infrequent service. But lets multiply the streetcar attraction and capacity now by five so that buses would reach the same level of capacity as a streetcar. Now you are looking at buses costing $74,940,000 over ten years to reach the same capacity levels of a streetcar. Remember, we still aren’t factoring gas as it is a variable cost.

      Streetcars, unlike buses can run for 40-50 years with minor upgrades. So multiple $74,940,000 x 5 and you end up with $374,850,000 in the price of a once an hour bus route alone. With no gas, no road improvements no major problems. But that is not factoring in inflation on the buses. If factor inflation at its current rate, we are looking at the bus route (just the buses again, no gasoline! No road repairs or bus station repairs! No sign changes – just the buses themselves) we are looking at the bus route costing $1,874,250,000.

      Will that work for you?

      • Curious you are accounting for the incremental costs of the bus system but ignoring the maintenance costs of the light rail system.

        Pretty one sided post. Why is VIA trying to be so secretive and hiding behind half data sets?

    • I realize that estimate only touched on the cost of just the buses. You want dedicated lanes, super stops, etc. This will all add exorbitantly to your already high figure of over a billion to continue upkeep on the current system. How much are you willing to pay for such a system? I would venture to guess if you add the figure I gave you to whatever you come up with for your bus lanes, and stop renovations, plus the inconvenient truth that the back of the bus for the most part will always be lost revenue as in general people hate the bumpiness that causes them nausea, you are probably looking at a 2 billion dollar price tag for your bus system. Is that a wise way to spend funds?

  3. Wayne, the “love affair” with driving to work solo may be the motivation for some people, but for many others, it’s motivated by the lack of other options. A streetcar system would provide a much-needed alternative for the many who are willing to give up driving, if there were another way to get from Point A to Point B.

  4. I don’t know that I agree that “we’re not ready.” In some senses that is certainly or arguable the case, and I take Randy’s excellent point. Issues with public transit are complex and a city like San Antonio has myriad such issues ranging from development/population density, to funding (including from gas tax which is a strong source elsewhere in the country), to planning for future growth. Certainly many cities have now clearly proven the development impact of a smart transit system including well-planned rail. The point is that you don’t do something like a rail system based on today. You do it based on where you think the city will be in 10-20-30 years, and where you want it to be. Smart transit options drives development, not the other way around. I was baffled by the SA Express story which, while well intended, did not look at cities with great success and which in this or that way can or should be compared to San Antonio, like Denver and Portland. I thought the small selection they made were questionable comparable studies, or at least a larger picture was warranted. Rain in San Antonio locally will drive development (there is no question about that in my mind) and is very much needed to push the city to grow in the right ways, and in doing so to build the density and smart planning that will represent a successful San Antonio in, say, 2020 or 2040. It is the age old chicken or egg question. Cities that do not deal with transit in smart ways but continue to grow like San Antonio — and continue to indulge or embrace a lot of unhealthy growth, like San Antonio — are cities that ultimately are hampered later and rather embarrassed by their lack of vision and planning, and it costs o much more then to come back and try to remedy it. How about we look at some of those cities, in the hopes that we don’t follow their path. So, I respectfully disagree.

  5. One additional comment to append: While speculative, the current funding model for the base system includes significant federal funds. I have to suggest two things. This base system includes building out the lines in the downtown area which is by far the most expensive part of the proposition due to the hard urban structure, tight streets, higher construction costs, etc. To do that with significant outside funds is important, if possible, and smart. Looking forward, I fear that America is heading into an age of having ever diminishing funds for expansive new infrastructure development like this. So, while I’m basing this only on observation, I suspect the age of the federal government having a lot of funds to help cities like San Antonio will come to pass. What transportation funds that are available may be needed for way-overdue infrastructure repairs to existing systems, like bridges and current intra-city rail, etc. San Antonio should take advantage of this rare moment in time. We may not have the chance again.

  6. This will not help daily commuters who do not live downtown. SA is in desperate need of infrastructure development and road repairs today.

    • Are road repairs free? Why should the people who take public transit or ride their bikes have to pay for your choice to live in the suburbs?

      I am just kidding of course. But we often pay for things that we never use. I will never use an f-15 fighter jet. Doesn’t mean I problem with my tax dollars going towards one.

  7. Excellent article by Randy Bear and another by Jarrett Walker (follow the link provided by Lewis Sussman above). I too have yet to hear a cogent rationale for spending millions on a streetcar. While economonic development is nice, it should not be the goal of VIA. As a car driver and bus rider, I see so many inefficiences in the city’s current transportation system, but these problems could be addressed by better planning and fewer dollars, not streetcars.

  8. Tom great points and you and I should grab lunch and talk more, maybe include Ben Judson, as well. The points you make are really how successful cities do transit development. While I’m not trying to bash SAT too much, I have to say AUS does it right. SAT seems to do it based on the direction of a few people with minimal public input. Yes, we hold the hearings but it almost seems like they are more for show than true input. How long did it take to finally get the planners to drop Alamo Plaza from the plan? I think it finally took Bernal telling them before they finally removed it. Check out Project Connect for what a true plan looks like.

  9. It is always good to learn from the past too, so that we don’t make mistakes in the future. A critical albeit rhetorical question that few ask is why the street car networks in our cities were removed. What forces (read business lobbies) were at play in pushing that agenda. How much right of way, in some cases, was perhaps lost from the public good for private gain. Street cars should have never been pulled from American cities, but retained and regularly upgraded over the years. It is a uniquely American phenomenon, but at great financial loss and cost, assisting in producing weakened urban areas that we have suffered through for decades, not changing. Sometimes planners get carried away (in the wrong direction) and politicians can also pollute good urban planning. The same goes for the American railways, built as public infrastructure for the most part and insanely handed over to private industry; crazy. Now, cities looking at putting back in commuter rail and having to negotiate for complex arrangements to reuse and pay for right-of-ways and rail access that, in principle, they built but blindly cast aside for private sector profits, against the public interest. It is a simplistic picture I paint the make the point, and more complex to be sure. Good planning requires long-term thinking, not just thinking for today, and transparency.

  10. Finally we agree on something, Randy. 🙂 I don’t think San Antonio is ready for rails downtown and most of the citizens agree, based on denying the votes needed for funding it at least three times since I’ve lived here. It’s clear that VIA isn’t fiscally ready for such and undertaking and I’d rather see them running full BRT’s for at least 10 years on the proposed routes before they make a permanent commitment to rail, to prove out the best routes and capacities.

  11. I can respect the financial concerns brought up by this article; however, this comment is simply not factual: “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.”

    That statement does not consider the Convention Center expansion eastward, and that there will be a stop directly in front of the new SE entrance of the Convention Center. Furthermore, the recommended line directly services the Riverwalk, Market Square, El Mercado, Hemisfair, UTSA, The Pearl(and again, the Convention Center) and is within a three minute walk from the Alamo, Main Plaza, Tobin Center, and La Villita. Not sure how one could argue that it completely bypasses the core of downtown and makes it difficult for visitors to get around?

    On a personal note: I am not offended by tourists having to walk 3-5 minutes from a stop to the Alamo–if that is what is considered “the core of downtown”. They don’t seem to have trouble getting there now. Maybe we should focus on attracting a more elevated type of tourist that can navigate public transit, walk a few blocks, and explore authentic local spots instead shuttling in droves to the Alamo and Rainforest Café.

  12. the growth of downtown isn’t as fast as people are making it to be.. I walk downtown and see lots of empty buildings… maybe towards outside of downtown downtown but not the core of it…..Street cars aren’t even necessary you can walk majority of it faster and two as we grow…street cars will get in the way… there is not rush make use of what we have walk it…jeez…. Via isn’t even there for most of us that now we have money for a street car plans? come on.. really?

  13. Thanks for your comments ARH. Actually, Andres Andujar did an analysis on the proposed line and said the Convention Center station is 3 minute walk from the entrance, not right at it like Austin or Dallas. Regarding the core of downtown, it does hit close to those areas but had it run down Commerce/Market the impact would have been much larger.

    But, I think you are really missing the focus of the piece. As I stated “Regardless of which route it takes, in my opinion, San Antonio is not ready for the cost and expense of a modern streetcar.” I’d love to hear your comments on the sustainability and expense of the system. I don’t think any route would be perfect.

  14. RR, you should cite when it is an opinion article. I am aware your paper is mostly from outside contributors from the community, but such titles as these make it appear as if the paper is representing this opinion. It can be confusing when you sometimes have varying viewpoints represented by your articles. Plus it’s quite a decisive title. Perhaps it could read, San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System, Says Concerned Citizen… or, Local Activist. You get my drift. Otherwise, I wonder if Randy Bear could start a facebook page listing his blog articles for us to read. Glad for his activity. Even if one disagrees, civic engagement is necessary.

  15. Edwinna, specifically 1604 needs to be expanded to more than two lanes in one direction. It’s a nightmare. Along with 151. Luckily I live in the city’s core and don’t ahve to worry about that anymore 🙂 but it’s a real problem. Otherwise I’d say our infrastructure is doing pretty well.

  16. I think a logic behing the city’s premature motivation (which I don’t necessarily mind) is to attract residents which brings business. Data show we made a textbook mistake by inviting business only to downtown the past few decades, when we should have built up residential developments instead- which is followed by business. That is how you have a thriving center city. Leaders of SA want to strengthen the local economy by having a walkable urban area which is *increasingly preferred by valuable young professionals with talent in the knowledge economy*. Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco… people want to live there and therefore big companies base their offices in those areas. We want people to want to live here, in our urban core. That’s where it’s at in the 21st century. It’s a long-term economic investment and I share this vision for SA. Austin doesn’t have as big of a need, as people are already attracted to that city. We are playing catch up to becoming what our leaders envision as a world-class city.

  17. Even as a downtown resident who could theoretically benefit from this, and even as a big believer in public transportation, the Streetcar plan has always struck me as a totally absurd boondoggle, for just the reasons Randy points out.
    It certainly makes no sense as a transportation system…

  18. I have little to no knowledge about public transportation, but I can’t see how the city benefits from its bus transportation, much less a streetcar system. I wonder what the operating costs per rider are for the VIA bus system, and what percent of the city’s population and its visitors use the bus system in any given year.

  19. I guess I just fail to comprehend how a 3 minute walk from an entrance constitutes as “completely bypassing”. That is front door service in any real city.

  20. We’re not ready. If they do this, I believe it will be done against the will of the people and for the good of the few. It will take just as long to get ridership levels up as it takes to build the thing just to make it feasible. It’s not worth it. Take a progressive stance all you want. It’s won’t cut it. Our smart growth can depend on other things besides smart transit anyway.

  21. Why can’t we just get a large protected section for bikes. New York went big this year on bike lanes and in Times Square there are even protected lanes in the center. This would probably be cheaper and promote more bike usage. Many drivers are not used to seeing bikes on the road and don’t know how to react. I know this is something a lot of people want, I see tons of bikes now on Broadway.

  22. Can somebody please explain why the cost per mile is 2x that of Seattle?

    Yes, this proposal is 2x as long (more track), but its cost is projected be 4x that of Seattle (per the numbers in V. Davis’ story last weekend).

    Seems like a pet project boondoggle that nobody really wants other than our powers that be.

  23. We are not ready for streetcars “now?” Then when?

    Economic and urban growth historically follows access to transportation. Early American development occurred along waterways which allowed access to the movement of goods and people. Cities in the Northeast US were early adopters of public transportation leading to development of vibrant downtowns.

    If San Antonio is to revitalize downtown, it must move forward with effective means of public transportation to include light rail and streetcars.

    • @Ed. When is a city ever ready for a huge boondoggle? These streetcars are really nothing more than a bus line that is tied to a fixed rail at quadruple the cost of just improving the bus system with new hybrid-electric busses, dedicated bus lanes, pullouts, and superstops. There isn’t even any provision for parking at the beginnings of the rail lines, so people who drive in from the suburbs now will still have to drive into the city center rather than park and ride in on the street cars.

      • Jim:

        Buses are subject to the same congested lanes, sharing traffic with autos while streetcars have a dedicated line.

        Certainly, if there are defects in planning of such a system such as lack of parking at key points on the line, then that need be addressed. Such issues do not invalidate the concept of streetcars itself.

        Ideally, an elevated train or monorail which interface with ligh rail would remove street level congestion the best but may be too expensive.

        • Ed: If you re-read my post–or better yet, read the article that Lewis linked to below–you will see that I am not just suggesting more busses. To improve the system they will need to add dedicated bus lanes with their own pullouts, and superstops that provide logical gathering places with free wifi coffee kiosks and such. This would give the busses every advantage of the street car, for a fraction of the price. Some other advantages of busses: need to extend the route? no problem just put up more bus stop signs farther down the road at no extra cost. Changes in the city call for the route to go elsewhere? no problem, just modify the route–good thing you aren’t tied to a fixed rail.

          • Jim:
            Once you have added dedicated bus lanes, pullouts, superstops, etc. do you really have a system that is much cheaper than streetcars? Where do you find the space and access for dedicated lanes? If you take those lanes from existing street lanes, that will add to congestion.

          • @Ed: Yes, it’s a good question, would busses with the same infrastructure (minus tracks, of course) be any cheaper than streetcars? I believe the answer is yes, a lot cheaper based on the article I cited. You have to make a logical case for adding streetcars as something you cannot do with busses by adding the same amenities, such as off vehicle fare stations, dedicated pulloffs or “stations,” lanes, etc. Then you have to make a case that the flexibility of busses; i.e. ability to change routes, add routes, etc.; is somehow surpassed by some other advantage of streetcars yet to be identified. I agree with Jim that once you admit that it’s an economic development tool, then you have to prove that it’s a better economic devlopment tool than a state-of-the-art bus system with the same bells and whistles as a streetcar system, only cheaper. Streetcars might very well be a better economic development tool. Then you have to ask “should VIA be in the economic development business? Who benefits? Who is bearing the risk?” I’m not saying they shouldn’t. Just be clear about it.

  24. Here’s what I originally posted on the blog site: “While I love the nostalgic idea of a streetcar, no one has yet explained to me what advantage they offer over modern state-of-the art busses. This article changed my mind:
    I realize there must be other points of view out there that present a strong argument for streetcars over busses. Would anyone care to read the article and weigh in?” So far, no one has offered a response. So if it’s the case that the streetcar idea is more of an economic development tool than a better transportation idea, fine, let’s simply admit that and move on, and discuss it on those merits.

    • @Lewis. Even if one admits the streetcar idea is just an economic development tool, they should still owe you an explanation of how it is a better economic development tool than simply improving the bus system with “modern state-of-the-art busses” (to which I would add: and dedicated bus lanes, pullouts, superstops, and yada yada that would make bus ridership more attractive and efficient).

    • @Lewis. In that case your question becomes, what advantage does a street car system offer over modern state-of-the-are busses in terms of economic development potential? You can buy a heck of a lot of modern busses and infrastructure for $300 million.

  25. I would still love an answer about WHY the San Antonio streetcar would have a construction cost ($ per mile) that’s 2x as high as Seattle’s.

    We will get a line that’s twice as long that cost four times as much.

    It doesn’t add up.

    I ask, “Who would make money off of this project??” What construction companies and contractors? And who are they influencing in local government? How many sweetheart deals will be created?

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