Robert Rivard

Before it’s too late and we become a sprawling city of expressway and downtown gridlock, San Antonio needs to embrace new and better ways of moving people in and out and through the city.

The one man, one pick-up truck model clogging our freeways, and the dingy, downtown storefront bus stops used only by the city’s lowest-paid workers, need to give way to more efficient, democratic ideas. The 21st century model of mass transit is reliable, attractive, affordable, and sustainable. It’s the long-term, responsible thing to do.

That means modern streetcars plying the rails in the central city, and bus rapid transit (BRT) swiftly and safely carrying commuters in dedicated lanes from points to and from the suburbs and within downtown.

VIA Primo bus.
VIA Primo bus rapid transit service. Image courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Done right, a modern mass transit system that takes us beyond buses can move people of all socio-economic statuses ever more efficiently, reduce our carbon footprint, and spark economic development. Put another way, we need to find ways to reduce the number of vehicles coming from inside and outside Loop 1604 into the city and the number of vehicles circulating inside Loop 410 – particularly inside the central city. That includes buses as well as private vehicles.

It’s never easy, and the division and debate in San Antonio isn’t any different than what has taken place in other cities before us. I lived in Dallas when many ridiculed the notion of mass transit relieving Central Expressway’s daily bumper-to-bumper crawl. Today, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or the DART system, is widely used by suburban commuters and few questions its efficacy or its economic impact along its path.

People want reliable modes of efficient transport, but they almost always resist paying for it. It’s no mystery why elected officials stressing back-to-basics often talk about “filling potholes” while foregoing other supposedly optional investments that require significant investment.

VIA transit buses on Houston Street.
A crowded bus stop on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Truth is, far more people drive cars and trucks than actually vote. What elected officials don’t talk about is how the state of Texas has plunged taxpayers deeply into debt building and repairing roadways, or how many hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on highways and expressways inside Bexar County in the last decade.

The short answer is that we’ve spent far more on highways, and burdened taxpayers with far greater debt loads in the process, than we will ever spend on streetcars. The big difference is that highway spending only leads to more traffic, more pollution, greater demand for more highways, and more debt. Streetcars – and I hope light rail someday – reduce gridlock, reduce pollution, and can be built without assuming heavy debt.

Streetcar graphic courtesy of VIA.
Streetcar graphic illustration courtesy of VIA.

That’s why it takes strong leadership to build a modern mass transit system that will meet San Antonio’s needs now and in the coming decades. That’s also why voters should trust the two men they have elected and re-elected in overwhelming numbers to make the right decisions now. Both County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Julián Castro have backed the construction of a Modern StreetCar System for sometime now.

VIA CEO Jeff Arndt was originally recruited to VIA for his expertise with the building and operation of METRO, which includes Houston’s light rail system. VIA Chairman Henry Muñoz, as I have written, has proven to be the wrong leader for a project that requires near-perfect political execution to win popular support. But his recent withdrawal from the project is no reason to oppose it.

VIA Streetcar/Trolley in Alamo Plaza
VIA Streetcar in Alamo Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

If the politics and public relations have been imperfect, the underlying aim of political leaders and transportation professionals has been clear: Act in the city’s best long-term interests and don’t wait until it’s too late, that is, when people are no longer able to effectively move in and around the city.

Centro_partnership1

Centro Partnership San Antonio appears to be taking its own measure of community opinion by inviting people to take a survey measuring support and opposition to the Modern Streetcar System. You can click here to take the survey. I’m not sure what Centro’s aim is. In a city where a single City Council vote on an issue – that doesn’t involve taxes – can lead to recall campaigns (see non-discrimination ordinance), it seems unlikely that Centro is holding a wet finger to the wind.

Proponents and opponents of modern streetcars can turn to other cities for ammunition to support their side. I’ve enjoyed street cars in New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland and I lived in the Northeast, in both New York and Philadelphia for enough years to embrace daily life without the use of an individual car.

What can’t be argued is that San Antonio is the last major city in Texas to embrace mass transit beyond buses, yet it holds the most promise of any Texas city for developing a successful center city streetcar system, thanks to our enviable convention and visitor economy. As local residential density improves along the likely street car routes, the opportunity for developing a system equally appealing to residents and visitors alike is clear.

The future of San Antonio’s urban core isn’t one where the city gives preference to residents over visitors. It’s where each constituency is served equally well in ways that allow both locals and out-of-towners to experience together an interesting and unique city. Build and operate a modern streetcar system, and San Antonio will become a model city for blending its center city residential and visitor population. And the redevelopment of the urban core that Mayor Castro has made the centerpiece of his tenure will happen that much faster.

One day later…

I’m adding a few relevant links or readers who want to “leave San antonio” and read about the streetcar experience elsewhere. These are articles I’ve seen over time and placed into my streetcar folder:

When It Comes to Streetcars and Economic Development, There’s So Much We Don’t Know

The Case for Caution When It Comes to Building Streetcars

Why Did Some Streetcars Survive When Most Didn’t?

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

San Antonio’s Transportation System: Evolution or Revolution?

San Antonio Needs Streetcars, But First, It Needs a New VIA Chairman

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

Transportation and Public Health: An Urbanist Conundrum

Out Of Town Attack on Streetcars

VIA Primo Service: Mixed Reviews From Residents

Clean Air, Clean Technology Take Hold in South Texas

Journey to the Center of the Sustainable Earth

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.