On Jan. 18, the Rivard Report published one of the best analyses on the streetcar issue in San Antonio. What made it even more interesting were the thoughtfulness and depth of responses from the readers. Although it looks like the current plan will go full speed ahead and any more comments from the peanut gallery will only echo in our heads, I was inspired to give this topic one more shot.
I did find it funny that the headline, “10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars,” contained the oxymoron “modern streetcars.” Streetcars are solid 19th century technology that VIA is desperately trying to rebrand as “modern.” What if we really did want to have “modern” mass transit?
If we really wanted to be “modern,” we would be looking forward to a 21st century monorail system, not a 19th century streetcar system. Check out www.monorails.org if you want to see, in-depth, how monorails stack up against light rail. For the sake of this article, I am proposing monorail as a truly “modern” answer for retrofitting mass transit into both urban and suburban environments.
1. Only the Mayor can lead this.
VIA board members aren’t elected, they are appointed (largely by City Council). Centro San Antonio and Pat DiGiovanni’s team were created to focus on the center city. For “modern” mass transit to be successful, it has to be a community-wide solution. If the Mayor believes in this, he must lead it. If he doesn’t believe in it, he should kill it. Either way, he owns it.
2. Start over.
Far too many limiting assumptions have been built in to the discussion. These assumptions weren’t challenged and when the wrong questions get asked, we get the wrong answers.
3. This has to be community-wide mass transit.
It will obviously start with a north-south route, but before the first pylon is dug, the entire community plan must be in place.
4. Start north-south, but not the north-south we know today.
What is already the only profitable north-south mass transit loop in the city? Airport to downtown! Start there. “Modern” mass transit will be expensive to build, but even more expensive to run. It has to be designed from the beginning to cover the costs to operate, or we will end up in 10 years where we are now with the police and fire contracts – it will bankrupt the city.
A modern monorail that started at the airport and followed 281 to the Alamodome could fly over Brackenridge Park and the San Antonio Zoo, marketing those destinations to our visitors. It could stop at The Pearl, then deposit the riders at the Dome. The small shuttle buses would be repositioned from the airport to downtown, so riders could get to hotels, entertainment, universities or employment centers.
5. Experiment scientifically.
If the first route were from the airport, perhaps the second would be along Loop 410, connecting the San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC) to North Star Mall to Ingram Park Mall to Lackland AFB. Perhaps the third would be a crosstown route that connected UTSA’s downtown campus to St. Philip’s College and the AT&T Center. The fourth route might connect downtown UTSA to the South Texas Medial Center and University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio to UTSA’s main campus. Would a fifth route relieve Loop 1604 from Randolph AFB to Lackland AFB?
6. What we should NOT do, what we should do:
Study it. Hire consultants. Get an engineering study. Here is what we SHOULD do: Experiment! A scientific experiment starts with developing a hypothesis, then testing that hypothesis against alternatives. All routes after the initial (already proven) north-south route should be developed, then tested, then compared with the tests on alternate routes.
If VIA bought a small fleet of hyper-modern buses, about the same capacity as monorails, proposed routes could be tested against their alternates. We could test before we built.
7. Regain trust by holding an election.
By this time, the entire community will have been engaged in the process. The final, community-wide route system will be in place. Every corner of San Antonio would benefit from the final product. Routes would have been tried and tested. There would be data in the place of speculation. Now we should revote the issue.
Let’s not argue that we could easily spend Advanced Transportation District (ATD) dollars on a monorail system. “That was never voted down.” Let’s go the other way. Let’s get the City, the County and VIA to hold a joint election approving and funding a real, modern mass transportation system for the entire community. Before the first line gets built, community trust must be re-built.
George Block stepped down as CEO of Haven for Hope and is now Chairman of the Board for both San Antonio Sports, as well as Voices for Children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.