Why San Antonio’s Streetcar Project Ran Off the Rails

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Mayor Ivy Taylor (far left) speaks at a press conference following Monday’s City Council Executive Session, with (L-R) County Judge Nelson Wolff, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Mayor Ivy Taylor (far left) speaks at a press conference following Monday’s City Council Executive Session, with (L-R) County Judge Nelson Wolff, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Why did VIA Metropolitan Transit’s streetcar project, five years and $17.2 million in the making, fail so suddenly last week? If Mayor Ivy Taylor is going to lead City Council and work with VIA to devise a new comprehensive transportation plan to bring to voters, one important task will be to look back and analyze why VIA’s streetcar project was derailed.

Some of the mistakes made along the way are obvious, but some of the missteps might go unrecognized. I am a big believer in streetcars, yet I also wrote two articles in the last year warning that VIA’s project was at risk.

A Failure in Leadership

2013 was not a good year for the VIA streetcar project. In July of that year, the Express-News disclosed that VIA Chairman Henry Muñoz III had purchased a near-Eastside building with business partners after voting to approve funding for streetcars, which would pass near the property.

Former VIA Chairman Henry Muñoz.

Former VIA Chairman Henry Muñoz.

In the scale of things, Muñoz, the successful non-architect owner of the architecture firm Muñoz & Company, didn’t have much to gain given his limited ownership and the wealth he already had accrued. But the high profile Democratic national fundraiser, popular in national Latino circles, is a lightning rod at home with a history of creating political messes dating back to his time as a political appointee under Gov. Ann Richards and more recently as the driving and controlling force behind the now-defunct Museo Alameda.

(Read more from September 11, 2013 on the Rivard Report: San Antonio Needs Streetcars, But First it Needs a New VIA Chairman)

Muñoz was promoted by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to serve as VIA chairman in 2008, as an enthusiastic advocate for multimodal transportation in a city with not much more than a bus system used mostly by the working class population. Equally important, Muñoz was a rising star in Washington Democratic political circles. City and county leaders believed he was San Antonio’s best shot at securing tens of millions of federal dollars targeted for cities building multimodal transportation systems. Muñoz, however, would prove to be a divisive leader, a page-one distraction.

What VIA really needed was a visionary CEO who could appeal to all communities served by the transit authority, and many thought San Antonio found that person in Keith Parker, who was hired with much fanfare from Charlotte, N.C. in 2009. Parker, however, was overshadowed by Muñoz and the board. Parker resigned after three years in 2012 to take the head job at Atlanta’s transit agency, undeniably a big step up nationally, but the highly-regarded African-American transit executive had been exploring his options for months, frustrated that he had the CEO title but not necessarily the job.

To this day, VIA remains board-driven. Parker was replaced by his number two, Jeff Arndt, who had come to VIA from Houston’s transit agency where light rail had been successfully introduced in a city with some of the worst traffic congestion  and air quality in the country. Arndt has remained even more low profile than Parker, and the appointment of former City Manager Alex Briseño to replace Muñoz as chairman has ensured that VIA will remain more board than staff driven. When VIA decided to hold a “rally the troops” press conference Friday in the wake of the decision by the city and county to withdraw support for the streetcar project, it was Briseño, not Arndt, at the microphone addressing the media.

The media focus has remained on VIA’s board rather than its staff and long-range planning. VIA held what seemed like countless public meetings on the streetcar issue, yet its messaging remained one-dimensional and lacked creativity and spark. What VIA really needed was a dynamic marketing campaign to galvanize the city’s Millennials and others concerned about the city’s long-term air quality, carbon emissions, and worsening congestion. Lots of people want out of their cars and into modern mass transit, but VIA never galvanized them or captured their voices.

Routing Rooted in Controversy

The controversy over the Muñoz property holding and proximity of the streetcar route reached the point of absurdity as gun-shy VIA lawyers advised other trustees with any downtown property to join Muñoz in recusing themselves from voting on the prospective route choices being presented by staff. Rick Pych, president of business operations for the San Antonio Spurs, owned a unit at La Cascada Condominiums downtown while trustee Mary Cass Briseño, who is married to Alex (the two did not serve on the VIA board at the same time) owned a future retirement condo at La Vidorra downtown. Could people who lived or worked downtown no longer involve themselves in a project designed to serve downtown?

Streetcar supporters in the development community favored an extended north-south route that would connect the fast-developing Broadway corridor to downtown and into Southtown. If the revitalized San Antonio River had connected the city north and south in an exciting new way, then Broadway would be the surface artery doing the same.

Downtown interests wanted to see the streetcar line take in some east-west streets, while people in the visitor and convention economy wanted streetcars to ply the Convention Center, adjacent hotels and a soon-to-be redeveloped Hemisfair Park.

The final Phase One route managed to leave everyone somewhat disappointed for one reason or another. It didn’t go far enough north on Broadway to serve the Witte Museum and the Do Seum, which would open in 2015. It wouldn’t reach Brackenridge Park, much less the University of Incarnate Word. It didn’t cross into Southtown, much less reach the Blue Star. It swung west toward the Westside Multimodal Center instead of east to the Convention Center, downtown hotels, and Hemisfair Park.

Phase Two would run from the Westside Multimodal Center east along Cesar Chavez Boulevard to the Robert Thompson Transit Center near the Alamodome. As a mechanism for taking buses and bus riders out of downtown, the route made a lot of sense. As a streetcar route that others would ride from one destination to another, it seemed like a bust. Phase Two quickly came to be seen as a political compromise in a city too often defined by Anglo-Latino and Northside versus Southside, Westside and Eastside divisions.

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

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

(Read more from Jan. 18, 2014 on the Rivard Report: 10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars)

The truth was VIA planners simply didn’t have the dollars to extend the streetcar lines in ways that would have guaranteed higher ridership and economic development spread over a broader area of the urban core. A project that should have united progressive civic and business interests in the center city instead left people debating the fine print.

Farther north, suburban residents were increasingly stalled in worsening congestion, leading to demand for more highway spending to alleviate the Stone Oak area rush hour gridlock. Many of the same people were not frequent visitors downtown, and they  began to see mass transit investment as favoritism for downtowners.

Hundreds of millions of tax dollars gathered citywide had been spent in the last decade expanding the suburban highway grid and connectors, but that spending received little scrutiny in the mainstream media. Suburban commuters treated continuous highway expansion like an entitlement.

The Downtown Business Community Stays on the Sidelines

Some in the development community wanted to see Broadway become a complete street at a fraction of the cost before ground was broken on a controversial and expensive streetcar line that would disrupt area businesses for months. Wouldn’t tree-shaded pedestrian ways and protected bike lanes accomplish the same goals?

It would fall to Centro San Antonio, led by CEO Pat DiGiovanni, a former deputy city manager, to convince business leaders and developers to contribute significant private sector funds to the project. Such contributions were necessary to give VIA sufficient working capital to do the job right, and also to demonstrate to the public that the business and development interests that would benefit most were willing to pay their fair share. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce commissioned a SABÉR study that projected billions of dollars in economic development spurred by the Phase One line over the first few decades. If that were true, wouldn’t the direct beneficiaries be willing to contribute millions now?

They weren’t. A frustrated DiGiovanni, serving in effect as the bridge between the center city business community and VIA and City Council, was outwardly doing everything possible to support the streetcar project. But it was becoming increasingly clear by the summer 2014 that support that once seemed broad was, in fact, only inches deep. Private sector contributions never materialized, and the Centro board grew increasingly divided over the merits of the project.

The Suburbs and a Petition Drive

The streetcar project became a useful target for any number of opposing forces. Suburban City Council candidates won favor with voters tired of Mayor Julián Castro’s Decade of Downtown, especially after losing the Pre-K For SA early childhood education election.

Tea Party politics, once confined to national and statewide races, now found a stronger foothold in local politics. An us vs. them kind of rhetoric began to define the conversation between suburban and downtown interests. The notion that downtown belonged to everyone in every part of the city seemed lost on more and more voters and more and more of the people elected to represent them.

County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, seeking to unseat County Judge Nelson Wolff in the Democratic primary, became an overnight streetcar opponent. Adkisson had previously voted with Wolff to support the streetcar project, but now he was reversing course. The Southside politician remained unappealing to Northside voters, however, and went down handily.

Former City Councilman Carlton Soules was another matter. Once seen as equally unlikely to pose a threat to Wolff’s re-election, Soules has used his opposition to the streetcar project much more effectively. He may not pose a credible threat to Wolff, but no one in the Wolff camp is taking any chances. The longtime incumbent is campaigning hard.

Bruising collective bargaining talks between the City and the San Antonio Police Officers Association over proposed cuts in the runaway costs of health care benefits for uniformed personnel led the firefighters union, awaiting its turn at the bargaining table, to jump headlong into the petition drive to force a vote on the November ballot. The union and an unusual set of allies were seeking 20,000 signatures, enough  to force a vote that if successful would amend the city charter in a way that would handcuff elected leaders from making future transit decisions without first seeking voter approval. City and VIA attorneys said the challenge as superseded by state law protecting the City and VIA’s right to manage the public right of way, but the shrillness of the debate drowned out any consideration of legalities.

Firefighters angry over the prospect of benefits cuts in a new contract and the City’s $32 million contribution to the streetcar project, which would actually occur over a span of years, convinced many petition signers that the choice was between firetrucks and streetcars. It wasn’t at all, but the hardball tactics worked. Even now, with the streetcar project shelved, City Council faces a difficult Wednesday meeting where staff will present the arguments for accepting or rejecting the petition drive as legitimate and a success.

By last week, with former Mayor Julian Castro now in Washington as the new HUD Secretary, the parting words in his farewell speech defending the streetcar project and warning of “demagogues” seeking to divide the city, seemed all but forgotten.

Newly elected Mayor Ivy Taylor presided over her first executive session of the City Council on Monday, a meeting that led to the City pulling the plug on the project. County Judge Nelson Wolff followed suit and pledged to reverse the county’s commitment.

Move SA Forward, formed by streetcar supporters to counter opponents and promote VIA’s Long Range Comprehensive Transit Plan, found itself sidelined before the group’s first press conference could be held.

VIA’s streetcar project, years in the making and only two weeks away from completed environmental studies essential to winning federal funding, suddenly had ground to a dead stop.

*Featured/top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor (far left) speaks at a press conference following Monday’s City Council Executive Session, with (L-R) County Judge Nelson Wolff, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. Photo by Robert Rivard.

 Related Stories:

Ending San Antonio’s Streetcar Standoff 

City & County Pulling Plug on San Antonio Streetcar Project

How Streetcars Fit into Transportation Safety

Some Streetcar Fact Checking

Clearing the Air at Streetcar Town Hall Meeting 

Street Fight Over Streetcars

Billionaire Outsiders Take Special Interest in VIA Streetcar Plan

The True Value of Streetcars in San Antonio

33 thoughts on “Why San Antonio’s Streetcar Project Ran Off the Rails

  1. When will we have individuals who have the political spine and are less susceptible to few but loud naysayers who continually seek to disrupt efforts to improve this city because of their own misguided and selfish needs.

    • I attended all the VIA meetings. There were always opponents outside, handing out leaflets. None of them ever bothered to attend the meetings.
      The money and campaign of the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute convinced many suburbanites that they would be paying $300 million for something they’d never use. The truth is that the city’s commitment was only $32 million spread over 25 years. That comes to $1,280,000 per year, which is a small amount.
      All the rest of the money – money that would have created jobs for people from all parts of the city and would have created the start of a city-wide transit system with the downtown streetcar – all that money $260 million or so, was all from federal and state funding – NOT from the city. Those millions are not likely to go to some other city that has its act together and doesn’t have reactionary politics controlled by the Koch Brothers.

  2. Hi Bob! Whether you are for against streetcars, it’s wrong for VIA to keep $93 million that was only given to it for streetcar use. That should be something we all agree on. If taxpayer money is given to it for one purpose, it shouldn’t be used for another. Can you use your powerful voice to affect change in this regard?
    Also, here is a great article that offers perspective. I share it with you in hope you can see the other side of this coin. I don’t care for the tone but the ideas expressed here are pretty dead-on: http://www.danielpuckett.net/Dan_Puckett/blog_diario/Entries/2014/8/2_Open_letter_to_the_San_Antonio_establishment.html

  3. The people against the streetcar are the same ones that are going to complain about downtown parking and traffic problems in 5 years.

    Opponents fail to see the big picture of the obvious economic development the project brings.

    Growing pains of a city on the rise- hopefully this doesn’t stop us in our tracks.

  4. Susan, opponents took a great deal of time to study the arguments advanced by the proponents and came to the conclusion that it was an incredibly expensive and inefficient answer to a question very few asked. Opponents studied streetcars in other cities and learned from them. So, please don’t dismiss it as some form of enlightenment that has escaped and eluded the majority. We saw the “big picture” and it didn’t make economic sense.

  5. Suburban voters have certainly treated massive highway expenses as an entitlement, and the scrutiny supposedly used for public interest only seems to apply to mass transit.

    But Ms Taylor is signaling her intent to place any future mass transit development under the thumb of suburban voters. This would create a double standard meant to prevent any meaningful mass transit improvements – while hundreds of millions of our tax dollars continue to go to highway boondoggles and subsidizing the lifestyles of those on the fringes of the city.

    This would probable benefit Ms Taylor if she still intends to run for a state legislative seat, and might benefit her if she pulled a bait and switch by running for mayor as an anti-Castro. But deliberatively sabotaging mass transit development would be incredibly harmful for our city, and the toxic legacy of this decision would last for decades.

  6. To all the people living in the suburbs and complaining that they need more highway lanes to fight congestion (rather than millions being spent downtown), news flash: more lanes = more traffic. Study after study says the same thing. You’re fighting a losing battle…and one that shouldn’t effect the future of downtown development. Was the VIA streetcar proposal flawed, sure, but so are so many of the arguments against it. Great article Robert !

  7. Via is arrogant, the Council opportunistic, and much of the population hyped up on pickup fumes….

  8. Tired of people saying “let the people vote” on this issue. As an inner city resident I want to be able to vote before every time a superhighway or lane addition happens in the Northside.

  9. Great summary of the life and death of the streetcar project. It is always interesting to see what politics and money can and cannot accomplish. I do not have much knowledge of the project, but from what I’ve read I was not in favor of the project. I do applaud Mayor Taylor for her leadership in euthanizing the suffering project.

  10. Richard/Jeff: if you want a “city on the rise” you need to make it easy for people to move around. Highways (not streetcars) are a significant part of that equation. As for this fake north side versus downtown issue, I don’t think that’s an argument you want to start. While I don’t live in Stone Oak and the nearby areas, they pay a disproportionate amount of taxes. To demagogue them in favor of a pet project is a mistake.

  11. Many residents moved to areas such as Stone Oak to avoid the congestion of people and cars. Now they complain about how the City is not rushing in with billions of dollars to build bigger highways so the area can attract more cars and more people. The press conference by Mayor Taylor reminded me of the old guard from the Good Government League days in the 1950 and 1960s. The street cars were finally rejected to satisfy a vocal, anti progress minority wanting their share, and the reelection campaigns of a few politicians led by Nelson Wolff. All principles of good governance were thrown out the window. A modern transportation system, crucial to the growth of the City will not be considered now for at least a generation.

  12. Morgan, the article that you link to is interesting. I completely disagree with the premise of it though. I do agree that a large percentage of San Antonio residents don’t particularly care for urban living. However, there is a large minority that do. A couple of examples… I’m sitting at Rosella’s this morning on Broadway and it’s filled with people. In addition, I’ve visited most of the apartments around downtown and they are all pretty much completely leased. Also, my partner and I just started construction on a single family house less than a mile from the Alamo (there are neighborhoods near downtown with yards too!) and there are dozens more people that have started to buy and fix up historic houses around here as well. So yes, San Antonio has a diverse population that has different ideas of how they would like to live, unlike that opinion of the article you posted. I also know that from an economic perspective companies find it very hard to attract talent to the San Antonio area. I believe that unless we start to offer both suburban and urban environments we will have a harder time attracting talent from the other major cities in Texas, making it unattractive for companies to be based here or open up major operations.

    All of that said, I’m glad we are going back to the drawing board on this project and sincerely hope they will come up with a BRT based transit approach that will help to link downtown to some of the closer in suburban development and truly help to ease traffic, because as one poster mentioned, you can’t really ever satisfy highway demand for ever expanding suburban and exurban development.

    Thanks Robert for another great article.

  13. Good points Will. VIA needs you. Instead they invited public comment but only inasmuch as it confirmed to their pre-conceived idea of what SA “must” have to be a great city. Hopefully there will now be a place There’s a place for all ideas at the table. The language used so far, however, suggests that the same plan will crop up again only this time hidden deep in some omnibus package.

  14. Excellent synopsis of this Shakespearian tragedy, Bob. I hope your timeline and details of these fatal flaws will used as part of the SWOT analysis in the next effort to address the critical transportation needs of our burgeoning city. (This is the article I will forward to all of my friends who keep asking, “What just happened?”)

  15. I could have not said it better…your article is on point. I am also for a streetcar system. One that is effective and efficient, productive that serves the majority. I remain hopeful that VIA will eventually get the leadership necessary to move forward for the benefit of the community’s transportation system!

  16. An analysis of the above finished route map will alert the walking public to the problem. Streetcars exist to enhance travel between large population “nodes”. The largest in the downtown is the convention center. The route along Chavez does not go to another dense center, and is a walk for conventioneers back into the city along any point. Anyone for additonal miles of walking in this heat? The easy connection is between the Pearl/Broadway development and the downtown, and this is recent. If you ever worked downtown you might have wondered a ways up Broadway only to stop, knowing the distance to things. This is the role of a streetcar. You hop on one, ride a ways, and extend your comfort zone, even in weather. All of you walkers think that the technology is outdated, think that busses do this chore and/or that the landowners will reap undo profits? I do not think so.

  17. I don’t get it.. street cars are low capacity, low speed and high cost. Why are people pretending they will be some traffic panacea? Then those same people claim the street cars will increase development. OK well, that might be true but any increase in development will outstrip and ridership capacity of a street car system.

    • Paddy,

      There IS no “panacea”! It doesn’t exist – and no one with any knowledge of transportation issues has ever claimed such!

      Streetcars would be an integral part of the overall mix of alternatives (call it “multimodal”).

      By the way, operational costs of rail-based systems are low. It’s the capital costs that seem relatively high; however, the figures are mitigated by the fact that railway infrastructure lasts such a long time.

      In addition, the budget for this project included roadway work and underground utility relocation that had nothing directly to do with the streetcar lines, themselves.

      Garl B. Latham

  18. Just because there isn’t a majority who will go vote for a particular public transportation project does not mean it is not needed. There’s always the people who would vote against every public transportation project.

    That said,, the only kind of rail that it makes sense to spend money on is the kind that is either elevated (above the traffic) or under the streets (a subway). But those systems are out of the question anyway because…

    1) the cost, and
    2) people who don’t want to use it will say it is ugly.

    Rail/Streetcars on the street do not make sense, because you will just be in the same traffic jams as the cars and buses. Buses can do anything that street-level rail can do, and do it cheaper and better.

    The key benefit of elevated rail and/or subways, is that it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, or the weather, or whether there’s an accident on the roads, or a fiesta parade event, etc. — you always know exactly how long it takes to get from one station to another. So you know exactly when to get to the station in order to get to work on time.

    • So, is “congestion” the only matter worthy of our attention? Surely, issues like environmental stewardship and energy efficiency and quality-of-life and public safety are also important!

      If it looks like a red herring and smells like a red herring…

  19. ^^^ Paddy Martini, that’s a pretty obvious answer if anyone bothered to spend at least 30 minutes in the past 5 years asking that. Homework.

  20. I’m a supporter of it, but even I’m aware we can get the same walkability if we just slow down the traffic along Broadway. Oh wait, these same people in this picture removed a bike lane because all the old people complained they couldn’t drive fast anymore. Nevermind……

  21. Morgan,

    As a transportation professional whose specialty is railway passenger service, I’ll call your hand on this one!

    Simply put, opponents could not possibly have taken “a great deal of time to study” the issues specific to San Antonio or “streetcars in other cities.”

    What opponents did was “study” the information provided by various anti-rail special interest groups. There’s no other way the conclusion that streetcar service would be “incredibly expensive and inefficient” might be reached!

    Had you truly seen the “big picture,” you’d realise our society’s autocentric approach to transport is not sustainable.

    Finally, I seriously doubt “the majority” cared one way or the other. As you pointed out, “very few” are asking the questions necessary to move us forward. The more people who come to understand, the more who will embrace alternatives.

    Garl B. Latham

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