High-speed passenger rail connecting Texas cities, a promise that seemed to have died after decades of discussion, is back in the conversation as San Antonio squares off against growth and congestion with talk of light rail as a solution that needs only voter support.

If you sat in traffic this morning, waited for a bus, or wished for a nonstop flight that doesn’t exist, you can thank Amazon for at least some of the sense of urgency to these conversations. The company’s recently announced it was seeking a location for a second North American headquarters.

Bexar County Precinct 3 Commissioner Kevin Wolff said he’s been “knocking on the City’s door for two years” asking for solutions to the air service issues in San Antonio. “And one of the exclamation points to that is the recent Amazon announcement,” he told the Rivard Report following a transportation forum Monday hosted by the League of Women Voters.

“The Amazon [request for proposal] explicitly states you need direct flights to ‘this’ city and ‘this’ city. The City [of San Antonio] will tell you we have direct flights. But that’s not what matters. It’s frequency. So just with that alone, we’re really off the table as a likely place Amazon is going to choose.

“We’re enticing them by talking about future plans we have, and where we see our community going, but the reality today is we don’t have the infrastructure in place they’re going to be interested in.”

But for the fastest-growing corridor in the country – San Antonio to Austin – it’s not just Amazon and the 50,000 jobs it would bring that has the two cities working together on regional approaches to economic development opportunities and transportation.

“We know businesses are coming here, and we know how important it is,” Wolff said. “Utilizing our current mass transportation map is not an answer.”

The discussion of rail was welcome news to the 100 or more people who gathered at the Central Library for the forum that included Wolff, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, VIA Metropolitan Transit President Jeff Arndt, and UTSA Adjunct Associate Professor Bill Barker.

Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (P2). Photo by Scott Ball.
Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (P2) and then Councilman Ron Nirenberg during a VIA board meeting in September, 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Rail between San Antonio and Austin is much closer than it’s ever been,” Wolff said. “There are a number of potential plans. The good part is that San Antonio and the Austin MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization] are working together, and we’re now working with the Dallas-Fort Worth MPO. These are large, futuristic projects.”

MPOs are regional transportation agencies that conduct planning enabling a metropolitan area to receive millions of dollars in state and federal transportation funding for everything from rail lines and buses to roadways and bike lanes. There are about 400 MPOs across the country, and while most are part of a city, county, or council of governments, the Alamo Area MPO is an independent agency made up of 14 elected and seven appointed members. Sandoval and Wolff sit on the MPO’s board.

In San Antonio, where Nirenberg said an estimated 150 cars are added to area roads every day, addressing transportation “will be crucial to San Antonio’s future,” he said in a keynote address.

“We have an underfunded transportation agency that doesn’t stretch to the limits of our city,” he said, referring to VIA. “A single-mode-dominated system of traditional roadways that’s increasingly over capacity, and a network of bike and pedestrian routes that landed us on a list of places where the streets are unacceptably dangerous. What’s worse, because of the lack of alternative realistic modes, we have a transportation system that has a long way to go before it’s resilient or sustainable.”

But preventing the expected 900% increase in congestion, according to Nirenberg, at major bottlenecks in town is going to take funding. The 2018 City of San Antonio budget increased spending for streets by 50% and added another $5 million for sidewalks and $4.3 million for VIA to improve frequency on nine routes. Nirenberg also created a new city council transportation committee to enhance mobility and connectivity in the city, including air service.

In January, a new airport system development committee will launch an in-depth study of air assets in San Antonio, including Port San Antonio, Stinson Municipal, and San Antonio International Airport. “We will focus on solutions, and we will redouble our efforts for the next generation of air service in San Antonio,” Nirenberg said. “And with data, we will be all in.”

Nirenberg answered questions from the audience as well, where conversation again turned to mass transit systems between San Antonio and Austin and other Texas cities. “It will happen,” he said. “When is a matter of getting it through the environmental and planning process.”

A local tech investor who said he moved to San Antonio from Austin pushed the mayor to fix a “broken” public transportation system here. Enhancing bus service and adding roadway capacity, Nirenberg responded, “does not substitute [for] planning as aggressively as we can and investing in mass transit for tomorrow. I think our solution for transportation today is to work diligently and to invest in ‘all of the above’ options for the future.”

Although Dallas and Houston implemented light rail systems years ago, in 2015 voters here overwhelmingly backed a City charter amendment that requires the city to get voter approval before contributing funding to a light-rail project or allowing such a project to use city streets.

“I think we need a 21st century approach to funding public transit,” said Barker, a professor of urban and regional planning. “I think we need to implement smart road strategies, focus our growth in a thoughtful and efficient way, reduce the amount of impervious parking area, and … develop capacity among our local transportation planners to examine road projects to see if they are reducing our vehicle-miles of travel,” or VMT.

Three cities the size of San Antonio have reduced their VMT – Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento and San Jose, California – by about five miles a day per person, he said.

“That’s billions of dollars of travel savings,” Barker said. “How did they do it? They built light-rail transit systems. And they did that by having the funding. They fund mass transit four or five times more than we do per person.” And those systems result in similar commute times to what San Antonio drivers currently experience, plus they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, what Barker calls a “moral obligation.”

Arndt put the area’s expected population growth in perspective: “I tell people it’s as if by 2040, the city of Austin moved to San Antonio and brought all their cars with them, but they didn’t bring their lanes with them.”

The answer, he said, is to build a more diversified transportation portfolio, one that includes not only a better bus system, but also “smart” transit with autonomous vehicles, and rapid transit, whether that’s right-of-way bus lanes, light rail, or an innovation yet to be discovered.

But before light rail can be implemented, a funding source must be identified. Wolff said federal government funding for rail is currently directed to Northeastern states, and a state fund is inadequate. “An airport-to-downtown rail system – that project by itself is a billion-dollar project,” he said, “and today there is no revenue stream to do that.”

The city of Denver, where some predict Amazon will put its sought-after HQ2, received the largest federal grant ever for light rail. But it had local dollars to go with it, Arndt said. San Antonio’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is funded mostly by a half-cent sales tax (versus 1% in most MTAs in the state), with $30 million from the federal government and $10 million (in 2018) from the City budget.

“Dallas brings in six times the dollars per square mile that we do,” Arndt said. “Houston built its light rail line out of a savings account. But we are not able to save up that money with our half-cent.”

Commuters board a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus at the corner of Travis Street and St. Mary's Street.
Commuters board a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus at the corner of Travis and St. Mary’s streets. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Sandoval, who drew applause from the audience when she declared mass transit a “God-given right,” suggested San Antonio spends too much of its transportation dollars on incremental improvements that reduce commutes or expand capacities.

“At some point in the future, hopefully while I’m still on the MPO, I think it’s time for us to be bold,” she said. “And ask ourselves: Are we willing to forego some of these incremental improvements to begin to transform our community and make that investment in rail?”

Wolff responded that while he agreed with the philosophy, often the local level is constrained by state and federal rules around the use of transportation funds. Thus, the solution is working toward a public-private partnership that could provide rail sooner. A formal Request for Information will come in about a year, he said.

In the meantime, Arndt said VIA is planning a number of new park-and-ride and HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane developments – in other words, rapid bus transit – with the first to open in Stone Oak in January 2018.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.