In the minds of many San Antonio residents, the VIA Modern Streetcar project is a done deal. They attended meetings to either voice their opposition or support. They weighed in on the proposed routes. When VIA finalized the route, it seemed like all that was left to do was wait for construction to begin.
In the lull, however, advocacy groups both for and against the project have become more energized. They are made up of business people and activists who sense the fight isn't over until the rails are laid.
The most organized opposition to the streetcar has coalesced around Greg Brockhouse’s efforts to bring the streetcar to a public vote by petitioning to change the city charter. The current charter allows VIA to proceed without a public vote. If the petitioners garner the signatures they need, and the amendment is legally viable, then the issue would go before voters in November.
"The VIA board serves at the pleasure of the San Antonio City Council, the Commissioners Court, and to a lesser extent, the suburban cities (who appoint two VIA board members)," said Jeff Judson, speaking for opponents of the streetcar at an informal meeting at Luby's Cafeteria on June 16. "There is no scenario under which VIA could assert some legal right to tear up the streets unless the people who appoint the VIA board agree with their doing so. We are not going to allow any of the elected officials in the city or county off the hook, hiding behind weak legal arguments in an attempt to escape their political responsibilities and accountability to the voters."
Members of the Streetcar Vote Coalition, as the group is called, were present at the informational meeting hosted by Americans For Prosperity. Local businessman Red McCombs and Judson spoke to activists and business owners. Judson is a the Senior Vice President of the San Antonio Tea Party and sits on the board of the Heartland Institute.
Americans for Prosperity offered the dubious disclaimer that its role was not to advocate in any way, but only to provide information.
Speakers highlighted the disruption to business that will be caused by the construction of the rail lines. Most of those present represented businesses along the proposed route, and voiced concerns that years of construction could effectively kill their business.
“I think it’s gonna create more problems than anyone wants to think about,” said McCombs.
Margaret Rote, owner of Herweck’s Art Supply, organized the meeting. Her main concern is that customers won’t have access to street parking. Herweck’s has a large parking lot adjacent to its building on Broadway Street, but some clients choose to utilize street parking. They would probably lose access to that street parking during construction.
Judson showed several videos (see one below) to validate those concerns.
The videos show news clips from cities around the country where small businesses have suffered from the construction at their front door.
The most active member of the Streetcar Vote Coalition, interestingly, is the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, which seems motivated primarily not by transportation policy but by its members' anger over the City of San Antonio's efforts to make the city's unifomed personnel start to pay health care premiums and accept other cost-cutting measures to rein in rising health care costs.
The union is in the process of collecting and validating the necessary 20,000 signatures needed for a referendum. The goal, according to spokesman Steve Moody, is to gather up to 35,000 signatures in anticipation of the validating process when the petition is presented, which commonly renders more than 10 percent of the signatures invalid.
The SAPFFA petitioners are courting signatures from City Council members. At the time of the meeting, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal had “refused to open his door” to the petitioners, according to Moody. He also listed council members Rey Saldaña (District 4), Ray Lopez (District 6), and Cris Medina (District 7) as refusing to sign.
The offices of Councilmen Joe Krier (District 9) and Mike Gallagher (District 10) confirmed that both have signed.
District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales were not mentioned as having been approached. Petitioners did not speak directly to District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, though the councilwoman confirmed that her mother did sign when petitioners encountered her at Viagran's house.
"As an elected official, I think it would be a conflict of interest if I did sign a petition like that," Viagran said.
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg refused to sign the petition, but not because he supports the streetcar project. He does not see the project as the right solution for San Antonio’s transit needs, though he does support other transit alternatives. However, he’s waiting to see if the petition will carry any weight.
“I would only support the referendum if it was legally binding,” Nirenberg said.
Whether the amended city charter can overrule the Texas Transportation Code, which both sides claim to have on their side, remains to be seen. VIA is claiming that Texas Transportation Code Sec. 451.056(a) exempts them from holding a referendum on the topic. Meanwhile the opposition is claiming that Sec. 451.058 applies more directly and requires the City, as owner of the streets, to approve the project and allow it to be subject to referendum.
The call to bring the issue to a vote stemmed from the oft-repeated conviction that the streetcar had been “rammed down the throats” of San Antonians. At the AFP luncheon, McCombs mused over the motivation for the project and the enthusiasm of its proponents. He suspects that Henry Muñoz and Judge Nelson Wolff are responsible for pushing the project through in spite of what the group perceived as popular opposition.
“I sense that (Mayor) Julián (Castro)’s along for the ride on this,” McCombs said.
Judson and others indicated that the imminent changes at City Hall will present an opportunity to leverage some political pressure that would challenge the VIA board and stop the project before any ground is broken.
“I think the momentum is on our side at this point,” said Judson.
Others believe that any momentum gained by the group has come from spreading misinformation about the project.
Moving SA Forward is a transit advocacy group started by developers James Lifshutz and Ed Cross, along with imagineSanAntonio's Bill Barker and others, who have long felt the need for such a group in San Antonio. Barker, an adjunct professor at UTSA, has spent his career in the transit and sustainability fields, and does not take his support of the streetcar project lightly. While opponents seem to feel that the city is being sold a trendy moneypit, this group of stakeholders feels otherwise.
“The funding for public transit is extremely difficult to get. These projects aren’t developed willy nilly,” Barker said.
The source of that funding is one such debate that prompted the group to finally formalize in the past two weeks. VIA projects the cost of the streetcar to be $280 million. The actual cost and where that money is coming from is a source of contention. According to VIA, a mix of state and federal dollars, along with the funds generated by streetcar fares, will decrease the burden on the city budget. Opponents claim that skyrocketing costs of operating the streetcar will directly deplete transit funds that would go to roadway improvements.
Moving SA Forward doesn’t have an official list of members, but at its second meeting on June 16, Barker said that the numbers had swelled. Individuals are trying to get their organizations on board, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is already hosting the group at its Pearl offices.
Regardless of whether the anti-advocacy group gains the political traction it needs to bring the project to a vote, Moving SA Forward plans to continue to advocate for progressive transit options in the city.
At the heart of the argument for and against the modern streetcar might be something far less tangible or measurable than operating costs and construction schedules. Ultimately, a fundamental reason for investing in urban mass transit is to make the city appealing to those who want to live in walkable, urban settings.
No longer content to simply say, “Well, then San Antonio is not the city for you,” advocates of the streetcar want to attract this demographic. The Millennial generation is the largest generation yet to be born in the United States, and they are the primary market for dense, walkable development, though as the boomers themselves retire, many are returning to the core as well.
So perhaps the question is this: how badly do Millennials want rail transit? Enough to choose their city based on transit options? Depending on how you answer that question, it begs another: How badly does San Antonio want Millennials in the workforce?
However you answer those questions, advocacy groups on both sides of the issue would welcome your voice.
*Featured/top image: VIA modern streetcar rendering, courtesy VIA Metropolitan Transit.