Seven Steps to Truly ‘Modern’ Mass Transit in San Antonio

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George BlockOn 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?

From www.monotrail.org.

From www.monotrail.org.

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. 

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

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

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 gmblock@sbcglobal.net

 

Related Stories:

10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars

Streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit Will Speed San Antonio’s Transformation

San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System

 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

 

17 thoughts on “Seven Steps to Truly ‘Modern’ Mass Transit in San Antonio

  1. his solution is a monorail? lol. also, this is only the first phase of the long range transit plan. nobody is saying that downtown will be the only community serviced.

  2. While I enjoy the ideas you are proposing, I think the constituents would vote down something of this grandeur. People would not want to pay taxes to fund something they deem unnecessary; when they have their cars to take them everywhere, it is difficult for some to understand the benefits of mass transit. Also, I would not want the airport to downtown option to serve only tourists. I would want this type of project to serve locals. Although the tourists could help fund the transit for locals. There is a similar idea for ground-rail with the L-star, a project proposal to connect Austin to SA, with several stations throughout San Antonio. http://lonestarrail.com/index.php/lstar/map/

  3. Kari, that’s why they refuse to put this to a vote. It’s not about transportation. It’s about pet projects meant to enrich the few the expense of the many.

  4. George Block has some good ideas. Any plan for a mass transit should be able to take masses of people from a location (such as those who arrive at the airport every day) and to a location (such as those who attend events at the Alamo Dome). It should stop at locations where residences and major shopping areas are concentrated (such as the Quarry).
    And you know what? Train tracks already run past these locations! If a grocery store can demand eminent domain to obtain a portion of Main Avenue, the city and county should be able to demand the airspace above the train tracks connecting mass transit destinations. It would be a win-win situation for all!

  5. Agreed. Streetcars are not modern. Any mass transit option that has to compete with traffic is not modern. Busses can already do that, without building all the infrastructure, and can be made much more attractive with dedicated pulloffs, pre-pay stations, etc. But that’s just a new spin on an old technology. Being able to get from one side of town to the other with no traffic – now THAT’s exciting. Cities that do it with subways or elevated light rail are vibrant because the important nodes in those cities are all accessible.

  6. Morgan, I disagree. Just because people are anti-tax and pro-automobile doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to this that they do not see. I’ve been to Europe, seen the trains that take people everywhere. The trains that are much more efficient and timely than waiting in traffic and clogging up the atmosphere. And which hold tons more people than a bus, and even more than one person per car like people do now. But the reason it is not put to a vote is people haven’t gone outside of their bubble to consider any of this. San Antonio is sprawling, and many people drive to Austin or in between daily. We are the perfect candidate if people would actually use the thing instead of driving everywhere and forbidding themselves to walk a few blocks.

  7. A monorail is an interesting answer to the wrong question. The goal of the streetcar project is to bring more people into downtown to live, work, and create community. “Great cities,” Castro is fond of saying, “have great downtowns.” And VIA actually cites two of the project objectives as “economic development opportunities” and “transit-oriented development”.

    A monorail doesn’t meet those goals. Yes, it could arguably be a better way to get people from the airport to downtown. But a monorail will never be a deciding factor for tourists to come to our city. It just wouldn’t meaningfully impact the numbers.

    Monorails may or may not be cheaper to operate (the jury seems out), but because the elevated stations are so expensive and complex, there would be a lot fewer of them. I think that’s why you see monorails either in point A to point B operations (with no branching) or running in loops in environments like airport buildings where the passengers are already elevated. Finally, I just don’t see the HDRC approving a bunch of overhead cement track around the city. In a city that literally banks on charm, I don’t think a monorail fits our downtown personality. And I’d argue against the idea that the core ideas of a monorail are any more “modern”.

    The goal of a streetcar (no matter how they try to sell it to you) is to create corridors and districts. Put another way, it’s to encourage concentrated development—the only type of development likely to have a meaningful impact on downtown within a single decade. It strikes me here that we are extremely lucky. We already have two natural corridors: the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek. And I think the new development that is just getting started will be a huge testament to how you can create vibrant communities using this model.

    So if we’ve already developed one river and are about to add another $175 creek project, why the streetcars? I think it’s an attempt to translate some of the river-level impact to up our currently deserted street level. You have to admit that, outside of a couple of pockets, our downtown gets real quiet real fast once you head up the stairs from the river.

    We have a proven record of success for developing corridor communities. The original Riverwalk brought a coveted tourism and for a long time downtown’s only true district. Now, at long last, The Pearl and Mission Reach are starting to finally trying to create a new district that brings locals to live downtown, too. Can streetcars repeat that kind of success? I think that’s the big question. In ticket sales, streetcars will never pay for themselves. (I give them a pass on that one. What city road has no maintenance and makes a profit? What city bus system earns profit? It’s a ridiculous standard.) So the only value San Antonio will derive from a streetcar system is the value of the development that the proponents argue will surround it. Do you believe that development will happen? Do you believe it will be valuable? Our city government does. I’m not sure our citizens are completely bought in. And with all the thought and research I’ve put into it, I’m still undecided.

    I know one thing: anyone who promises you the project will be a tremendous success or a huge failure is lying about their certainty.

    • :::

      “Great cities,” Castro is fond of saying, “have great downtowns.”

      He can say it until he’s blue in the face, but it just ain’t so.

      The great cities of Europe don’t have downtowns.

      Tokyo doesn’t have a downtown.

      San Francisco doesn’t have a downtown. Not really.

      New York doesn’t have a downtown. When NYers talk about downtown, they mean the division of the entire island of Manhattan, upper and lower. It’s not downtown in the sense of a centralized neighborhood of shops and businesses.

      What we need is LESS downtown, and more focus on forming distinct neighborhoods and districts within the city itself. That’s what great cities do.

  8. I think this guy is on to something. I would have to agree that Monorails are the best option for mass transit in San Antonio. Monorail linkages can be easily built and maintained and don’t require the excessive infrastructure needed for street cars.

    Honestly, I was going to be a negative nelly and go on about everything wrong with the idea but the website – http://www.monorails.org/tMspages/MonoVs.html – really changed my mind. This might actually work.

    The main connections should go in and out of the airport, downtown, and terminals should be located in high population centers across town. Each monorail line should be attached to a highway for support if possible.

  9. Is it too late to rescind my comment? I agree with Todd on all his points now that the maps have changed on the VIA streetcar website. I remember seeing a map that shows possible linkages to UTSA and TAMUSA both of which come with built in communities (districts).

    The idea that the VIA’ goals with this are solely to create corridors and districts is missing the fact that activity level increases with access to more transportation options (given the right strategy and use of available resources). I’m sure the goal of VIA is in line with the goals of Mayor Castro and the rest of the COSA to bring more investment downtown. The increase in opportunities will help increase the ticket sales which will eventually pay for the project.

    I think both are kinda of boring compared to a Gondola (Cable Car). Cable Car’s can rely on available infrastructure – pending improvements – and can offer people better views of the surrounding city.

  10. The “not” modern cable cars in San Francisco transfer 7m people a year. The total passengers from the S.A. aiport is 8,171,824. The BART works from the S.F. airport because it travels through the urban peninsula. The Bart station at the airport is really only a stop on a line, the airport not being the reason for the light rail system.

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