An historic panorama of the Alamo Plaza, October 26, 1918. View looking northeast with Post Office and Federal Building (upper left), streetcar (lower left) and Alamo Long Barrack wall (far right). Photo courtesy of UTSA Libraries, Special Collections.

How is San Antonio going to make room for one million more people? That was the question on the table at a panel discussion on “Moving People by Rail Within Cities” hosted by UTSA’s Center for Urban and Regional Planning Research.

San Antonio’s metropolitan area is expected to add one million people, equivalent to the population of Travis County, by the year 2040, said panelist John Dugan, director of Planning and Community Development for the City. Dugan said he would like to see San Antonio meet the demand while avoiding the miserable state of its roadways, sprawl, and commuter frustration.

To do that, Dugan says, we have to start now – planning and building the infrastructure to support numerous centers of activity that will provide jobs, housing, and access to services so that we can build up, not just out.

Director of Planning and Community Development John Dugan
Director of Planning and Community Development John Dugan

“We’ll grow all the way to Austin if we don’t,” Dugan said.

Where to locate all those new people is a sobering question, but one that citizens might well have wished was explored more carefully before City Council summarily withdrew funding for the VIA streetcar project.

Dugan was joined on he panel by developer and commercial real estate broker Ed Cross, of Cushman & Wakefield, and architect Bill Barker, from the board of imagineSanAntonio.

“Transportation is the organizing feature of our built environment,” affirmed VIA strategic planner Jason Rodriguez, who introduced the evening with a slide show on San Antonio’s streetcar history.  Light rail that connects point of activity doesn’t benefit just the immediate geography, Rodriguez notes. By spurring development, light rail projects have increased surrounding property values and contributed dramatically to funding for schools, infrastructure, libraries, and hospitals.

While increased revenues benefit everyone, the greatest impacts are seen along the transportation corridor.

Ed Cross
Ed Cross

“Developers like rails because that’s a commitment,” said Ed Cross. “When they’re built, you know they’re going to stay there. Bus routes can change.”

Developers who stand to gain directly need to come to the table, he said, and help develop a process in which they underwrite some of the costs for developing rail.

“Money should be invested to relieve congestion,” said Barker, “And that doesn’t mean just roads and highways.”

Growth in the extended city is often designed in ways that contribute to congestion, not alleviate it, as Rodriguez illustrated with slides of the city’s development during the streetcar era versus more recent development models.

The older model emphasized human scale and walkability, characteristics that resulted in neighborhoods with alternative routes and low congestion even now. Newer developments feature far less density, but with limited entrances, numerous cul de sacs, and complete dependence on automobiles, the arteries that serve them are heavily congested. Pedestrian and cycling activity on suburban main streets and arteries ranges from risky to impossible.

Rodriguez suggested that San Antonios streetcar history offers lessons for the future. Though successful, San Antonios streetcars closed in 1933 because of economic stumbling blocks built into the original contract between the City and the private entity that built and maintained the streetcar system– a fixed, five-cent fare, and a requirement that the streetcar company maintain and improve all streets it used. The street system even had to pay for street expansion to accommodate growing vehicle traffic. When city coffers emptied during the Depression, the streetcar operator bought their way out of a contract for services that were becoming too costly to provide. Flexibility, adaptability, and public ownership or public-private participation in the transit asset is now the norm.

Better mass transit could alleviate some of San Antonio’s pervasive poverty, Dugan said

“We have half a million people at or below poverty level, and they are often frozen out of jobs because they can’t get to where the jobs are: They can’t afford both rent and a car.”

Economic growth is being realized in cities where public transportation – specifically the use of light rail – bridges the gap between housing and jobs, letting people who want to work reach the centers of employment quickly and cost effectively.

Bill Barker
Bill Barker

When combined with focused development of active “town centers,” point-to-point rail not only removes cars and buses from a congested roadway it’s also the best option for efficiency, Barker said. “We had an explosion of rail a hundred and fifty years ago because we had to cover a lot of distance efficiently. If you put steel wheels on a steel rail it takes very little energy to move. The physics hasn’t changed.”

That makes rail the top choice for sustainability, he said.

With light rail temporarily off the table in San Antonio, has this conversation come too late?  The need to accommodate the projected population in San Antonio means that transit solutions can’t stay on the back burner for long.

For city planner Dugan it all comes back to our explosive growth: “By the time we get a streetcar planned and built we expect another 290,000 people. We’re looking at an entirely different world.”

Ed Cross offered this in closing, “In other cities, these initiatives all failed two or three times; Let’s not give up.”

*Featured/top photo: An historic panorama of the Alamo Plaza,  October 26, 1918. View looking northeast with Post Office and Federal Building (upper left), streetcar (lower left) and Alamo Long Barrack wall (far right). Photo courtesy of UTSA Libraries, Special Collections.

Related Stories:

Why San Antonio’s Streetcar Project Ran Off the Rails

Ending San Antonio’s Streetcar Standoff 

City & County Pulling Plug on San Antonio Streetcar Project

How Streetcars Fit into Transportation Safety

Clearing the Air at Streetcar Town Hall Meeting 


Retha Oliver

Retha Oliver is a writer and mother based in San Antonio. Her work has appeared in more than thirty publications on three continents. In Texas, she's written for The Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Express-News,...