Bekah S. McNeel

Am I the only person in the city who was surprised by the amount of political heat generated by VIA’s modern streetcar propsal? The image of the streetcar as a benign mode of urban transit seems but a faint memory, as it has now become a flash point for hot debate.

But for every impassioned advocate and opponent, there’s another taxpayer wondering if it will be more practical than the city’s past rail-dreams.

In 2010, VIA Metropolitan Transit launched a community-driven study to generate data on our travel habits, and ways to make them more energy, time, and cost efficient. This study is known as SmartWay SA.

SmartWay SA Goals:

  • Efficient connections to and among future activity centers
  • Transportation options not subject to roadway congestion
  • Significantly improved transit travel times for major trip movements
  • Transit system service quality and facilities, all ADA accessible, that will attract additional transit users
  • Opportunities for transit oriented development
  • Improved connections to other regional mobility and transit systems
  • Infrastructure to support long-term sustainable growth in the San Antonio Metropolitan Area
  • Connections to major urban centers, to enhance San Antonio and Bexar County’s place in the regional economy
  • Reliable, attractive alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle, especially during peak periods
  • Identification of the first corridor(s) to move forward into the next phase of development

The research findings have been compiled to make recommendations for transit solutions known as the Long Range Comprensive Transportation Plan (LRCTP), which was adopted by the VIA board of trustees on July 26, 2011. The plan includes bus improvements, bus rapid transit lines, rail systems, downtown circulators, Paratransit improvements, VIA VanPool improvements, and cyclist/pedestrian integration.

SmartWay SA, used with permission

With the Bus Rapid transit rolling out on December 17, we now turn our attention to modern streetcars.

To elucidate VIA’s streetcar vision, we turn to Brian Buchanan, VIA’s Director of Developement:

RR: First it would be great to hear  how the streetcars will work.

Nov 28, 2012, VIA public meeting at Sunset Station

BB: The Streetcars will operate as an urban circulator service, enhancing access to and connecting high activity employment and destination areas in downtown with areas of new growth and neighborhood commercial services.

While a precise operating plan and alignment still needs to be determined for the two initial routes, they will extend to the Westside Multimodal Center, Robert Thompson Transit Station at the Alamodome, lower Broadway and Southtown.  There will be points of intersection with VIA’s bus services at the two transit centers and at various points along the two routes.

RR:  What is the purpose of the downtown circulator system? How does it differ from other elements of VIA’s plan for mass transit?

BB:  Currently, VIA’s bus services primarily intersect within the River Bend in the center of downtown, where most of the 40% of passengers on those routes transfer to another route.  VIA’s approach includes improvements to downtown transit infrastructure and bus service with the intent to provide access to downtown destinations that 60% of our downtown-destined patrons currently enjoy, and reduce bus congestion without reducing the level of service.

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

VIA’s current services require an increase in downtown capacity in order to serve areas of current and future growth in addition to consistent ridership growth on existing services. Its current routing structure through downtown needs modification to deal with these demands without increasing transit congestion.

VIA also needs to improve its patron amenities and services to offer better conditions for patrons waiting to transfer from one route to another.

As VIA grows and continues to add higher capacity commuter services that enter downtown, and with the eventual implementation of L-Star passenger rail services, a circulation and distribution system will need to be established to handle additional volumes of people without having a large impact on auto and pedestrians circulation through downtown.  Investments in Streetcar and transit centers, along with modifications to bus services lay the ground work for dealing with current and future demands on the system.

RR: How will the downtown circulator system stimulate business?

BB: The success of economic development is primarily a function of market demand.  There is a demand for growth downtown, a willing development community, and public policy in place to make this type of investment work in San Antonio. As downtown population increases, there will be increased demand for retail and services, which will ultimately stimulate business downtown.

While demand primarily dictates whether development can be possible, it may not dictate where and how these projects are implemented.  This brings us to the function of the Streetcar and its relationship to economic development, which is to physically connect places, both new and existing, which have not been connected before, and provide improved access to these places, increasing the potential foot traffic along the length of its route.

Where these parts of downtown are just beyond typical walking distance from one another, the Streetcar will serve as the organizing principle for growth downtown.  Investors and businesses will have a higher level of confidence in testing a new market knowing that people have a system of accessing their product and others, which is legible and predictable.

RR: How do street cars play into future plans for mass transit? 

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

BB: The Long Range Comprehensive Transportation Plan for 2035 outlines a number of transit infrastructure investments, including high-capacity commuter services in various corridors (referenced in first response above).  These services will be able to move more people throughout the region, and inevitably include access to downtown.

The Streetcar will serve an established circulation and distribution function for future high-capacity commuter services as they enter downtown, allowing greater flexibility for infrastructural considerations associated with these services.  This initial investment also serves as a starter system for future expansion of the urban circulator.

RR: How will the project be financed? (How much will each ride cost and will we be taxed?)

$51,800,000 from VIA Farebox revenue bonds

$92,000,000 from TxDOT Texas Mobility Funds

$55,000,000 from City of San Antonio contributions

$10,000,000 from MPO STP-MM funds

$1,200,000 from FTA Alternatives Analysis Grant

Fares have not been determined, though the current assumption is that Streetcar fares will match standard bus fares.

No additional taxes will need to be levied to build or operate the Streetcar system.


RR: How can we offer input?

BB: Go to public meetings!

As they collect feedback on proposed routes, VIA will take into consideration connecting destinations, operations (frequency and coordination with other modes of transportation like buses and bike hubs), costs, ridership (who would ride which

Citizens offer feedback on potential streetcar routing.

routes), road sharing with automobiles, Historical and Cultural compatibility, and economic development. VIA asks the public to think long-term, and even make suggestions for future phases of the rail system and integration with other forms of mass transit.

So give them some feedback, San Antonio!

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.