Less than one week after Mayor Julián Castro resigned his office for a Cabinet post in Washington, newly elected Mayor Ivy Taylor emerged from an executive session of the City Council Monday to announce an effective end of City support for VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Modern Streetcar project.
“The City of San Antonio is asking for VIA to rethink and redevelop their transportation proposal that could be taken to the voters for consideration at a future time. The current proposal is very unpopular,” Mayor Taylor said. “We certainly believe there needs to be community consensus on comprehensive multimodal transportation plan.
“Since there is such lack of support, I am directing the city staff to draft an ordinance for my colleagues on the City Council to consider to withdraw the city’s $32 million for the streetcar project and redirect that to other development initiatives in the center city to which we remain strongly considered,” Taylor said. “This ordinance…also will outline the fact that Council will not approve any rail project without approval of the electorate.”
Taylor said City Council would embark on a comprehensive update on the city’s master plan and also produce a comprehensive transportation plan. She called the streetcar project a “piecemeal” approach rejected by citizens.
“We heard loud and clear from the citizens on this matter that they want to have a say, and also we believe it is very important that we take a comprehensive approach in relation to transportation, and the current plan is more of a piecemeal approach,” Taylor said.
The mayor was joined at the impromptu press conference by six Council members and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who threw his support behind the Mayor and Council.
“While I am disheartened with today’s announcement, I fully understand and support Mayor Ivy Taylor’s decision,” Wolff said in a brief statement. “Unfortunately, we were not able to gain sufficient public support for VIA’s Five Year Short Term Plan, which included the streetcar.
“While Bexar County does not have a direct financial investment in the current plan, I will be asking our county representatives on the VIA board to withdraw the streetcar plan and develop a new transportation plan for future public consideration and vote,” Wolff said.
Wolff, who is seeking re-election as county judge, faces former City Councilman Carlton Soules on the November ballot. Soules has used growing suburban opposition to the streetcar project as a galvanizing issue in a race that otherwise was not seen by political observers as a competitive one.
Taylor is not seeking election to the mayor’s office in may 2015 after she serves out Castro’s unexpired third term, but she told the Rivard Report in an earlier interview that if elected interim mayor she would not be a caretaker mayor.
“I am committed to making the tough decision without having to worry about my political future,” she said in the days before Council voted to make her mayor.
At the Monday press conference, Taylor said City Council was “hitting the pause button” to seek public support for a more comprehensive transportation plan that addresses sprawl, congestion, and other problems that remain unaddressed. She said she is not concerned that today’s action could once again place multimodal transit on the city’s back burner for another decade or more.
“We can’t deny the huge growth that we’ve had in our city, and for folks who live further out in the city, the congestion they face on the road everyday is something that can’t be ignored. We have to develop other options for our city,” Taylor said. “We’re the only Top 10 city that doesn’t have another mode of transportation, so the question is right in our face. It’s about how we communicate together and how we plan together, so I am confident we can move forward on this important issue.”
City Council met in executive at 2 p.m. to be briefed by City Attorney Robbie Greenblum on City Clerk Leticia Vacek‘s review of 26,000 signatures on petitions gathered by streetcar opponents that called for a public vote on the project in November.
One source said the Clerk’s office found only 11,000 of the signatures were on valid certified petitions, but the prospect of inevitable litigation coupled with a lack of strong public support for the downtown streetcar project helped doom it politically.
“We will provide a full report on the streetcar petition signatures,” Taylor said later. “The City Clerk will provide that at our B Session on Aug. 6, so we certainly recognize the tremendous effort that was made by citizens and their voices were heard.”
Whatever the final signature count, growing opposition to the streetcars in the suburbs and the way it was becoming a larger referendum on downtown investment projects threatened to further divide the city. Even in the urban core, many supporters of mass transit alternatives were lukewarm about the streetcar project, wishing instead that VIA was building a light rail system that could move people efficiently in and out the center city into key suburban points.
At least one recent poll apparently showed growing public opposition to the project and a desire to see the measure put to a vote.
Without city or county support, emboldened public opposition and a lack of business community support, VIA officials have little recourse but to kill the project. Even Centro San Antonio, a private-public partnership organized to promote downtown development and livability, was lukewarm about the streetcar project and its proposed routes.
Move SA Forward, a recently formed coalition of pro-streetcar supporters that will continue to advocate for progressive mass transit solutions, met Monday and decided to cancel a planned press conference Tuesday, opting instead to await action by VIA.
District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, who was elected to Council in part on an anti-streetcar platform, praised Mayor Taylor for listening to the public and called the decision “the right one.”
“We need a comprehensive, well thought-out plan that we can take to voters, and if we can persuade them, fine,” Krier said. “This is a great victory for citizens who think they should have a voice in major public policy issues.”
This is the second time that a groundswell of public opposition has blocked a major mass transit initiative proposed by elected leaders in San Antonio. Voters rejected a light rail proposal by a 2-1 vote in 2000. Taylor said Monday she did not think ending the streetcar project would derail mass transit in San Antonio because the larger issues, ranging from air quality to traffic congestion, remain. Still, it’s bound to reverberate politically.
“We’re the only major city in America without multimodal transit,” Wolff said after the press conference. Speaking from the dais, Wolff said, “I spent five years of my life on this and we were unable to do it. You win some, you lose some. We lost this one.”
Taylor called on city officials to work with the County, VIA, and others to develop a comprehensive transportation plan that can be put before voters. The likelihood of any such initiative occurring in the next 10 months while Interim Mayor Ivy Taylor holds office and serious jockeying begins for the May 2015 mayoral election seems highly unlikely.
The stunning political victory by streetcar opponents, which included a major organizational push and media campaign by the San Antonio Firefighters Association, also calls into question the impact this development will have, if any, on collective bargaining talks between the City and the police union, which have been suspended since early June. The current five-year contract expires on Sept. 30, and efforts by the City to revive the talks have not yielded a positive response from union negotiators.
A video released by the union last week features San Antonio Police Officer Association President Mike Helle declaring that union dues will be raised to fund a public relations campaign against City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff and any Council members who oppose a new contract that forces uniform personnel on to the same health care benefits plan as civilian employees.
‘The people in my district who signed this petition did not sign it to make a statement about the police and fire contract issue, they signed it because they wanted to make a statement about the streetcar proposal, period,” Krier said. “We need a police and fire contract that is not a win-lose deal. We need to find something that changes what we’re doing, but I believe there ought to be some differential for uniform personnel and non-uniform personnel because non-uniform personal do not put their lives at risk, but it needs to be significantly different from the coverage we are currently providing.”
*Featured/top image: Streetcar graphic by Jason Rodriguez / Courtesy VIA.