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

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Robert RivardBefore 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_partnership1Centro 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


16 thoughts on “Streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit Will Speed San Antonio’s Transformation

  1. Excellent column, Bob. I wholeheartedly agree. One additional related issue in need of more visibility and debate: Texas remains one of the few (mainly Southern) states to spend all gas tax monies on road building and repair. Smart states know that good public policy is to use these funds in a mix, including in support of public transit. The failure to properly study and understand this holds Texas and those other states back, making the work of local transit agencies all the harder. None of this is new. There are decades of successful and failed experience around the country on all these issues, so we have no excuse to not have all the information and models we need to make this work.

  2. Bob I agree mostly with your positions on this but differ in one aspect. While I don’t disagree that rail of some flavor will be in our mix in the future, right now is not the right time for that. I plan to dig deeper into it today, after having visited Austin yesterday to examine their implementation of BRT. The short of what I discovered is that Austin, a city where a solid transit solution will easily work through their core, has focused on developing a sound and affordable BRT system first, then have voters decide about a rail solution from Mueller through to the downtown area.

    San Antonio has taken a “tail wagging the dog” approach to this and has lost public trust. When you can’t take a solution to the voters because you know it will be rejected, that’s pretty evident you’ve lost the public’s trust. CapMetro has the public’s trust and feels voters will make the right decision.

  3. Actually one model everyone seems to avoid looking at is right up the road in Austin. They have rail in the future and will be putting it to a vote in November 2014. Their solutions have been sound and financially viable, so much they have the public’s trust enough to take rail to a vote. VIA’s knee jerk planning has lost any public trust they might have had. VIA CAN’T take the issue to a vote because no one trusts anyone at VIA any more. That’s a problem that needs to be resolved before any investment of a quarter of a billion is made.

  4. Back in 2008, this was something that I emphasized with local community leaders, and it’s a discussion that’s been going on far too long with not enough action. San Antonio used to have a rail system downtown. Now we need to not only bring it back, but we need to expand it across town to connect the various economic and community hubs across town, just as DART has done for DFW. Dart is an amazing experience in itself, I’ve taken it from Plano all the way to downtown Dallas. It shares a lot of traits with Long Island’s Rail which takes passengers from NYC all the way out to the far ends of Long Island.

  5. I just can’s see how 5.9 miles of rail winding throughout downtown San Antonio will relieve 281, 35, 410, 10 highway traffic. The proposed system is not visioned to serve the same purposes as DART (base on the article’s comments about DART “widely used by suburban commuters). If given all the money and political capital you can imagine to develop whatever street car system you would want, how many users of the system would be envisioned and specifically, how would it change downtown San Antonio to the benefit of its citizens? To make the question easier, what would we see in San Antonio, that is different today, 5-10 years after completion of the 5.9 miles of track?

    • Ken one thing that helped DART was the acquisition of right of way almost two decades ago in a forward visioning process. Now DART is reaping the reward of that investment.

      San Antonio will never enjoy that luxury which is why they are opting for modern streetcar instead of light rail, which requires dedicated right of way. To Bob’s point, a cheaper alternative is BRT, which is what Austin is doing by installing MetroRapid throughout the major arterials of the city.

  6. “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” – Mayor of Bogota, Colombia

  7. The answer is: Hopefully more dense development in the core. The question should also be “What will we see less of in SA?” The answer to that is: Hopefully less sprawl development. If we stop expanding the outer edges of SA, that will benefit most SA citizens by not adding time to their daily commute; saving time and money. You can’t hope for an outcome if the proper infrastructure is not there. The status quo will create more of the same.

    • Nehemiah interesting point but how to do you propose we curtail sprawl? Voluntary curtailment doesn’t work, especially in a state like TX. Portland’s success was not by voluntary curtailment but through implementation of an urban growth boundary, which is still in force. Austin is driving towards a solution but it’s coming through the organic growth of its urban business core driven by the location of government, the university, and the medical community.

      BTW, that “infrastructure” is already there in a bus system that has a better frequency in the core than streetcars will have, but San Antonians are too “proud” to ride it. Austinites got over that a LONG time ago.

  8. What about all of those “eyesore” over head
    Electrical cables along the street car rail lines?
    Those wires will mess up the view of the facades
    of our beautiful downtown historic buildings.
    Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent
    to preserve the architecture just to have it junked up
    with trolley cables. I think that would really be a shame.
    Try taking a photo of all of that yuck.
    There’s other ways to reduce carbon footprints
    than rail. Use a different form of fuel.

  9. Can’t wait till all the streets downtown are under construction…….We do not need that. Can’t see how it will make a difference…..just more money down the tube. I am sure the guy that is financially behind the Pearl brewery is happy!

  10. Austin isn’t debating rail. They have it right now and use it and will expand it. Rail is about meeting the demands of tomorrow and about a vision for the city that is more than suburbia. I wonder how much of the opposition to density and rail is organized and funded by sprawl developers and car dealerships.

  11. one thing i can’t understand: opposed to what?!? more sprawl, roads & strip malls?! Too much of San Antonio is “Anywhere America”. What is to keep high profile people, entrepreneurs, creative types and job creators in San Antonio? Fiesta Texas? The Rim?? That’s bush league small town, status quo stuff.

  12. Compared to expanded or improved bus service, street cars are EXPENSIVE.

    Nobody has been able to explain to me why the San Antonio line would be twice as long, but FOUR TIMES more expensive than what was built in Seattle (per the News-Express reporting).

    The Seattle line was built 10 years ago. It can’t be a matter of inflation that would double the “price per mile” – this seems like an expensive boondoggle. Which contractors and companies are going to make money off this? Whose property value is going to be increased?

  13. I’m one of the fools who voted in the Houston METRO authority back in the day. And Houston’s certainly proved that you can’t solve transportation problems by just building more freeways.

    Disagree? Take a look at traffic congestion on the 28-lane Katy Freeway at rush hour. Its jammed solid with vehicles in both directions.

    Good transportation planning gives people many options to move from A to B. With just one option people must use cars to move around.

    We need more options in SATX.

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