Streetcar rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.
Streetcar rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on the streetcar debacle, I find myself still a bit mystified by how the project became derailed in seemingly such a short time frame. I find myself in discussions that leave me with the clear impression that rail transportation of one type or another is not, in practical reality, in San Antonio’s near future. I’d love to be wrong.

The real question is why do the streetcar plan, and the ensuing discussion, really matter to San Antonio? I think the fundamental answer to that is multi-fold, and the answer is frustrating on all counts. Foremost, it seems that we’re living with an artificial sense of where we are relative to broader transportation planning and how a rail future may fit into that.

As a relative newcomer to San Antonio with some background in – and keen appreciation of – civic boosterism and urban planning, I’ve tried to make sense of where SA stands in its growth cycle and, more importantly, the degree to which its truly diverse population may sometimes live in a vacuum.

In the wake of Mayor Ivy Taylor’s and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s somewhat surprise announcement that effectively killed VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Modern Streetcar project, I keep hearing positive spins on how this validates that the voters should be driving this decision and will finally lead to comprehensive transportation planning for the metro area while pretending that consensus among the opposition threw this effort off its tracks. I think all of these arguments are unrealistic at worst or just hopeful thinking at best.

Mayor Ivy Taylor (far left) speaks at a press conference following Monday’s City Council Executive Session, with (L-R) County Judge Nelson Wolff, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. Photo by Robert Rivard. Thomas Payton
Mayor Ivy Taylor (far left) speaks at a press conference following Monday’s City Council Executive Session, with (L-R) County Judge Nelson Wolff, District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Allowing citizens to vote on issues like transportation planning sounds good to some. Heck, hoist the red, white, and blue high and I’ll call it downright patriotic – or that’s how narrow constituency groups spin it when the issue at hand matters to them. While fully legal (as it should be), democratic, and a concept that no one should mount argument against, public votes on micro issues is not an effective civic tool when selectively applied, and that is how these ballot initiatives always end up. To pull the ballot initiative demand out of the hat like the momentary magic trick it is only leads to ineffective governance and public policy.

Well, most of the time.

It is interesting that this strategy only rears its head, usually, over controversial issues for which agenda-driven politics are at play. Such passion about killing this or that project, but on other issues of key concern to our community: silence. It feels grassroots, but very often is not. The demand for a ballot initiative is often knee-jerk and always blockade-driven, rarely forward-looking or truly proactive. How does this make for good public policy crafting and good city building? How often, with the clear lens of time, do we find people who come to wish they had voted otherwise because of expensive court challenges that reverse the effort, eager lawmakers reworking strategies to navigate around the ballot initiative, or the resulting loss of economic opportunity that leads civic boosters to question – if not completely reverse – their positions as the years pass.

Voting in a piecemeal strategy on this or that issue that simply angers enough people to mount a campaign is hardly the way to run, much less grow, a successful city. Heck, let’s vote in the placement of parks, library budgets, and the pay rate for all city employees.

I’m sure some are cheering after reading that last line, but my tongue remains squarely in cheek. Such strategies are governance subject to agenda and whim, not complexity of planning a healthy balancing of all of the needs of the community.

Every metropolitan city needs comprehensive planning, including transportation planning. Hopefully, everyone agrees with that. But, comprehensive plans are dangerous things. Dangerous for many reasons, but two reasons are particularly endemic. First, often a citizenry that does not understand the complexity of the puzzle pieces needed to compose a city simply think a plan is fixed-in-time and unchangeable. That buys false comfort: the solidity of a hard-fought plan that we can focus on and not waver from for however long it suffices until we, well, make another plan. Such thinking does not allow for the fact that populations are human and cities themselves are very organic, and the dynamics thereof change quickly with time. The challenge is a plan that is well-done, comprehensive, and practical whilst also being adaptable in logical ways while, hopefully, avoiding political agenda. Good luck with that, eh?

I think the desire for a comprehensive transportation in San Antonio plan is sincere and the complexities thereof are understood in some corners. But, it is a red herring strategy to others who simply opposed the street car just because, for their own narrow agendas, and/or who have no real interest in transportation planning at all beyond never-ending and impractical road expansion. Some elected/appointed officials point to their commitment to transportation alternatives, but regulatory constraints about which I don’t know aside, the speed with which VIA and the city alike moved to reallocate more than $120 million, essentially within days, was shocking and does not foster hope that any rail is in San Antonio’s near future.

And then there is the issue of comprehensive transportation planning and VIA in particular. Again, as a newcomer, I’m trying to make sense of this seeming groundswell of anti-VIA sentiment. No doubt about it, San Antonio has no unique claim to anti-agency public opinion. Across the country, government and quasi-government agencies have sometimes deservedly and often undeservedly wrestled with “anti” thinking. It comes from many corners, and I don’t need to go into that here. However, some immediately turn the discussion to VIA when talking about addressing long-term transportation needs.

VIA Chairman Alex Briseño, flanked by fellow trustees and staff, addresses media Friday. Photo by Robert Rivard
VIA Chairman Alex Briseño, flanked by fellow trustees and staff, addresses media last Friday. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Not so quick. Sure, the Modern Streetcar project was, rightfully, a VIA initiative, but comprehensive transportation planning involves a realistic assessment of the needs and limitations of roadways in addressing long-term needs, balanced with automobile alternatives including light rail, streetcars, alternative trail and public right-of-way connectivity, safe pedestrian and bicycle planning, and more. If it does not adequately address those in a manner that is honest and practical, while also educating the public, then we cannot fool ourselves.

VIA plays only one role in that process, and their charge is not serving all of the transportation needs of the community. For all of VIA’s supposed faults and misfires, it is too easy to lay all of this at their doorstep and always divert to a discussion of their supposed dysfunction. Similarly, without VIA and an honest understanding of their successes, value, and limitations, we will never have comprehensive transportation networks. It’s about working together and not wagging fingers.

My understanding is that VIA floated a somewhat comprehensive plan relative to their responsibilities for public vote in 2000, and it was resoundingly struck down. As planners often do, when an effort at comprehensive planning stifled – usually due to a misinformed public, inadequate education and marketing campaigns, and sticker shock budgets – they begin to work piecemeal. Piecemeal is often a dirty word, but piecemeal can be fine when then pieces are practical and fit into a larger pieced plan at the hands of professionals who generally know what they are doing. There’s an assumption many are uncomfortable with.

Piecemeal may not be the ideal strategy, but it is a strategy. To not deal with the pieces sans an approved larger plan would render VIA a do-nothing agency, and I wonder what the public outcry over that would be. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” perhaps? That is the context in which I view the latest streetcar project: an admittedly piecemeal effort toward a larger plan, and one in need of greater definition and better marketing. But I’ll take smart piecemeal strategies over naysaying and generally not attending to a city’s needs any day of the week.

More so, I’ve learned at the hands of engaged and long-term San Antonians eager to educate me that sometimes San Antonio has a real proficiency for reinventing the wheel, starting from scratch the SA way, and not using the laboratory that is urban American to learn and plan our own city. Those opposed to transportation alternatives fail to see what it takes for a city to be great, for a city to market itself nationally and internationally in effective ways, and to study the concrete experience (dos and don’ts) in other cities.

Urban rail transportation in America today is not rocket science. The pros and cons of various alternatives are proven. The positive economic impact is pretty much unquestionable. Our misunderstanding of this is best exemplified by those who, among themselves, debate streetcar versus light rail as if that is an option. Most successful rail cities I know of in the U.S. have developed or are rolling out wonderfully integrated systems that have to include both; not either/or. That alone shows how naïve we are and how much we have to learn, and how a starter piece like the streetcar as proposed could have educated rather than divided us. Transportation for growing cities with strong urban cores — and that is a required component for a city to call itself successful, like it or not — involved multiple modes are orchestrated and integrated.

A cyclists utilizes the Capitol Hill separated bike lane. The newly-constructed streetcar line on Broadway Avenue can be seen in the distance. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation.
A cyclists utilizes the separated bike lanes in Capitol Hill, Seattle. The newly-constructed streetcar line on Broadway Avenue can be seen in the distance. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Because of the foregoing, I feel that the opposition that “killed the streetcar” was hardly built on common ground, or united in their victory. To me it seems a fractured group that ranging from I’m-against-any-government-agency thinkers, to the ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it-but-build-more-roads gang, along with some very smart people (many of whom are my friends) who “get it” and are not necessarily against streetcars but are passionately holding out for a truly comprehensive plan built on a sold-to-the-community strategy.

Well, rah rah, and definitely count me in. But, to pretend that in defeating the streetcar there is consensus on where we go next rings hollow to me. Some will say that I’m simply making the argument for a new round of comprehensive transportation planning; I support that. But quickly announced blue ribbon panels aside, we’ll see shortly how serious we are about this, how willing we are to commit real resources to it, and ambitious we are willing to be in escalating the schedule and funding to think big and, frankly, play catch-up with other cities that are busy becoming great and who recognize the importance of rail transportation in the long-run. If delayed or given lip service, San Antonio loses momentum. I’m skeptical and I really want to be wrong.

But in the end, why does the streetcar debate and death really matter? It really isn’t about whether or not I can ride from the River walk to the Pearl, rather than walk, on a hot day. That is narrow and silly, and the initial streetcar was never envisioned to be a standalone piece that did not lead to a larger network. It’s not about roads versus light rail, versus streetcars, versus anything else. It’s not about urban or city-centric versus suburban and regional.

If we have anything to learn – and we’re showing we have a lot to learn – “us versus them” thinking is not solving the biggest challenges of our day, for our nation, or our community. It accomplishes little and wastes a lot of time and money in the meantime. A city is an ecosystem, and all parts must be strong, all parts must recognize the relative validity and/or importance of the other, all parts much work together, the whole must recognize the importance of a strong core, or the ecosystem does not work.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that San Antonio is broken. Hardly. San Antonio is a strong city and I’m proud to call it home. But great cities are realized by recognizing their potential and ambitiously reaching for it. A city does not become great by resting on laurels, relying on spin, or not being ambitious (even with some failure). “Ain’t broke,” “us versus them,” and NIMBYism mindsets never build great cities.

There is no doubt that San Antonio is in the national limelight, enjoying record media attention, and deservedly so. From industry relocations to post-graduation millennial movement, the type of spin that San Antonio is cultivating is very valuable and, yes, goes a long way in building the buzz that leads to greatness. That is where San Antonio is in its trajectory toward hipness, and economic vitality that could prove the long-term envy of the cities across the country. Building a great city is also a marketing exercise, and there is competition. In the world of marketing, certain things work and right now part of that is the assumption among trend makers, the media, major industry, and much of the population that effective transportation matters as much as, say, education and utilities.

?I wonder what, say, AT&T would have to say about the transportation debate, or any other of many companies we would love to recruit to San Antonio. ?

We have to play the game, and build a smart city, or we get bypassed. How about we be just as innovative and effective with transportation as we have been in addressing water resources, energy creation, ?cultivation of the arts, and educational reform; all works in progress but sources of great pride for San Antonio.

So, again, why does the streetcar matter so much? Passions run so deep, and anger and frustration has emerged as a result of the decision to delay what is, frankly, inevitable. It is not because everyone already bought their tokens to ride and are simply disappointed. In my opinion, it is because the streetcar grew to become symbolic of a moment in time and new thinking in San Antonio. To many, the streetcar became symbolic of what the city can become. It is a moment defined by great civic pride, raging creativity, a surging economy, and national attention, and with that attention comes scrutiny.

So, let’s opt not to “keep San Antonio lame,” as some like to say with their clever charm. When you mess with people’s symbols, be it national flag or streetcar project, passions and disappointments run deep and that is what we are seeing at play now. In derailing the streetcar, we have symbolically, if not substantively, taken a step backwards leaving many feeling that some momentum is lost. I know many people just don’t get that thinking at all, or don’t want to, but I suspect they are also fine with San Antonio staying just as it is. While I respect that perspective I also simply disagree and want to see San Antonio reach a far higher potential – potential that we have proven to be very adept at dreaming about.

*Featured/top image: Streetcar rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

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

Some Streetcar Fact Checking

Clearing the Air at Streetcar Town Hall Meeting 

Thomas Payton

Tom Payton is director for Trinity University Press where he acquires books in architecture and urban planning, in addition to other duties. He hails from Atlanta, but is proud to call San Antonio home.