Denver's 16th Street free MallRide. Courtesy of Denver RTD.

Editor’s Note: Last week the Rivard Report published an article about Councilmember Rey Saldaña’s (D4) experiences parking his car and riding the VIA bus for one week. In the wake of the May 9 General Election and the decision by voters to approve a City Charter amendment that will require a citywide vote on future light rail projects, the Rivard Report is publishing a continuing series of stories examining VIA bus service and ways to expand mass transit options in the city. We invite your ideas and comments.

Fewer than 54,000 voters sealed the fate for light rail projects in San Antonio when they voted May 9 to amend the City Charter and require a vote on any future use of public right of way for street car or light rail projects. The significance of that vote was overshadowed by the mayor’s race, which concluded with the election of Mayor Ivy Taylor in the June 13 runoff election.

Local officeholders we spoke with believe it will be years before a significant light rail initiative stands any chance of passage, and that the best course of action is to find interim ways to improve mass transit and build community confidence.

How can VIA Metropolitan Transit improve mass transit in the urban core and expand its base of users? The answer might be found in Denver, home to the one of the most expansive mass transit systems in the United States, and to MallRide and MetroRide — hi-tech, wheels-on-the-ground bus services. These center city bus services appeal to all demographics and could serve as a model for new VIA lines that take the place of the failed streetcar project.

Such a model would not require a public vote, extraordinary expense, or years of planning and disruptive street construction. Federal transportation dollars might be available to pay some of the capital costs.

The E arrives in front of the Tobin Center. Photo by Scott Ball.
The E arrives in front of the Tobin Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Many of us who supported the VIA streetcar project believe it would have succeeded as a north-south route reaching from Broadway south of Hildebrand through Southtown to the Blue Star Arts Complex. Instead, the project grew into a dual north-south, east-west system that increased the project’s scope, price tag and critics. As a prolonged debate ensued, the streetcar project became entangled in the politics of the collective bargaining process. Firefighters helped lead a petition drive that convinced newly seated Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council to withdraw funding and kill the project without so much as a public meeting.

San Antonio is the largest city in the country without light rail, and with little or no prospect of developing such transit options, it seems incumbent on city, county and transit officials to find ways to promote mass transit that reduces vehicle traffic and congestion, improves air quality, and spurs economic development in the urban core by making San Antonio a more attractive place to live and work.

One possibility is to create what I am calling the Broadway-Blue Star Express – “The BB” for short – that is designed to attract Millennials, empty nesters, downtown office workers, and other urban dwellers and connect them to the center city’s cultural and entertainment venues as well as residential, commercial and office destinations along the way.

This would be a system for locals. Visitors, too, even conventioneers also would gravitate to these bus lines, but not because they’re designed for the convention and hospitality industry. The attraction would be that visitors could live like locals by riding.

Denver’s Free MallRide and MetroRide

If you’ve never been to Denver’s 1.42-mile long 16th Street Mall you are missing something. Denver Regional Transportation District‘s MallRide is wildly popular with riders along a street otherwise closed to vehicle traffic. It has spurred tens of millions of dollars in economic development along its path since the service was launched in the 1980s. It’s free to users and they are using it by the tens of thousands of passengers daily. Denver has nearly 1,000 miles of rail and bus lines, yet MallRide accounts for 25% of the system’s passenger traffic, according to the RTD.

Free Mall Ride Map. Courtesy of Denver RTD.
Free Mall Ride Map. Courtesy of Denver RTD.

In the contentious debate over VIA’s streetcar project, the question was often posed: Is the streetcar mass transit or is it an economic development tool? Done right, a new version of the plan will be both.

At first glance, some visitors to Denver mistake the RTD’s ultra-low emission, hybrid electric vehicles for streetcars. The buses are built low to the ground and, depending on the model, feature a series of side-opening doors with interiors that accommodate both seated and standing passengers. The buses load and unload passengers with speed and efficiency. A fleet of 38 MallRide vehicles means buses arrive at each intersection along the 16th St. Mall as often as every 90 seconds during rush hour. The first bus leaves Denver’s Union Station at 5 a.m. and the last bus leaves at 1:21 a.m. for the 14.5-minute ride that ends at Civic Center Station.

By comparison, it’s 3.2 miles from the Witte Museum to Blue Star, but the longer San Antonio route shares a lot in common with 16th Street. Both are flat and ideally suited to the TransTeq buses. The Mall itself is densely developed with hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes, as well as street performers, art galleries, and apartments. The neighborhood is alive with people, day and night, and the human scale of the linear space creates community where locals and visitors blend together seamlessly. Within 10 years, that same kind of density is only possible along Broadway, it’s probable as more and more River North projects come online.

MallRide connects riders to Denver’s Performing Arts Complex and Theater District, major museums, the Colorado Convention Center, Coors Field (home to the Colorado Rockies MLB team), and LoDo, downtown Denver’s oldest neighborhood and teeming restaurant and nightlife district.

The average weekday ridership is 44,000, Saturday is 25,500 and Sunday is 17,000. There were 13.6 million riders from December 2013 through November 2014. It costs the RTD just under $13 million a year to run and maintain the fleet and the right-of-way. The Downtown Denver Partnership, which is similar to Centro San Antonio, maintains the pedestrian mall, including the sidewalks, landscaping and trash removal.

MetroRide

The free MetroRide, launched two years ago, grew out of the success of the free MallRide. It offers downtown workers a faster commuting option during daily rush hour traffic, and there is no doubt that it’s reduced the number of individual vehicles in Denver’s center city as a result. It makes only limited stops between the same two venues that anchor MallRide, the bus concourse at Union Station and the Civic Center Station, running along 18th and 19th Streets, just a few blocks from the MallRide on 16th Street. What’s unique about MetroRide is that it operates between 6-9 a.m. and again from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Commuters don’t have to wait long. MetroRide buses arrive every 5-10 minutes.

Denver's free rush-hour MetroRide. Photo courtesy of Denver's Regional Transportation District.
Denver’s free rush-hour MetroRide. Photo courtesy of Denver’s Regional Transportation District.

Broadway-Blue Star Express

A Broadway-Blue Star Express line would serve the University of Incarnate Word and Central Market at the north end,then pass by Brackenridge Park, the Witte, the new Do-Seum, and the Pearl. In River North, it would offer a convenient stop only a short walk to the San Antonio Art Museum, and pass within blocks of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. As it passed through downtown it would connect visitors with major hotels, multiple River Walk entrances, the Alamo Plaza, Hemisfair Park and the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. Events at the Alamodome would be a short walk from the line as it stops on South Alamo and Market Streets and the entrance to Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair Park.

As new development continues to follow a southern path along and near the San Antonio River, The BB would introduce more visitors to Southtown and the growing Blue Star Arts Complex. The line would promote usage of both the San Antonio’s Museum Reach and the Eagleland Reach, and serve as a commuter line for the thousands of apartment dwellers living along Broadway and south to the Blue Star-Cevallos Lofts district.

Weekdays would see urban commuters using the line from home to office, allowing them to leave their cars at home, thus reducing congestion and pollution.

Unlike MallRide, which is free and underwritten by the country’s most ambitious mass transit system, VIA could charge for its service. San Antonio doesn’t have the wealth of Denver, and a fare-supported system would make it an easier proposition for VIA and the City. A dollar-a-day for unlimited rides, or $25 a month, would be affordable, and would take many vehicles off Broadway, lighten traffic through downtown, and make the popular north-south route far safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

One VIA executive estimated it would take at least 16 hybrid, low-emission buses at a purchase price of $1 million each to service the line every 5-7 minutes, with annual operating expenses of $5-8 million. That’s a significant sum for VIA, which operates on an annual budget slightly over $200 million. One mechanism for helping with the costs would be to solicit startup contributions from the City and from private sector interests along and near the route that would benefit directly or indirectly, just as the City and Centro SA now support VIA’s “The E,” the free, evening bus service that ferries locals and visitors to various downtown arts and entertainment venues. The Broadway-Blue Star Express could switch from a fixed fare to free from 11 p.m.-1:30 a.m. and serve as “The Last Call” service to reduce drunk driving in the city.

Broadway as a Complete Street

A Broadway-Blue Star Express not only means no election, it also means Broadway does not have to be re-engineered for rail. That means less business disruption and far less cost and aggravation for taxpayers and business owners along the route. Reduced vehicle traffic also would make it easier for city officials to undertake a “road diet” project on Broadway and dedicate a lane in each direction to bus service with room for protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks. The street will never be the same as a vehicle-free mall like Denver’s 16th Street, but the slower traffic flow would attract more people to restaurants, cafes, bars and shops along the line, especially with more tree plantings, shaded bus stops, and thoughtful landscape architecture.

Most of the thousands who have attended events at the newly-opened $47 million Do-Seum might not have noticed that the utility lines in front of the museum have been buried, thanks to the $20 million gift from Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B. Burying the utility lines the length of Broadway from the Witte Museum to downtown would be a truly transformative act of place-making. It would allow for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, more tree canopy and shade, and very different streetscape views.

DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd speaks to the crowd. Photo by Scott Ball.
DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd speaks to the Opening Day crowd. Photo by Scott Ball.

CPS Energy has never been seriously challenged to undertake such a project, but there is every reason for the energy utility to embrace such a progressive move with the support of City Council, Centro SA and the business community. It would fit neatly into CPS Energy’s commitment to sustainability, and make it easier to transform Broadway into San Antonio’s very first Complete Street, one with fewer vehicles and a lot more people.

These are the kinds of projects that would excite San Antonians eager to build a better city, and the kind of projects that would generate media attention nationally that would elevate the city’s standing as a destination city for smart workers.

Local officials will get some help from the Texas Department of Transportation, which is deeding back to the City a 2.1-mile stretch of Broadway from the University of the Incarnate Word south to I-37. Federal grant dollars also are available, as could be funds from the 20-year River North/Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which was designed to provide developers with incentive dollars for projects located within the 458-acre zone. Funds could be designated for Complete Street work within the Midtown stretch of Broadway.

The project also could spur a new wave of sensitive mixed-use development along the perimeter of Brackenridge Park and activate the lightly visited park itself on weekdays and evenings. It’s hard to find another urban park the size of Brackenridge Park and located as centrally anywhere in a major U.S. city that has so few daily users, and so little surrounding residential and mixed-use development. Brackenridge Park has attracted far less attention than the San Antonio River and Broadway over the last decade of urban redevelopment in San Antonio, but as the area continues to draw more residents, retail, and convening of people, it seems only a matter of time before San Antonio rediscovers its biggest inner city park and its unrealized potential.

The proposal here to consider a Broadway-Blue Star Express line will draw critics. People who say it won’t work. Many in San Antonio will agree with me that the city is in urgent need of a public conversation about expanded mass transit options. Some might even agree “The BB” is a good idea, one we ought to take for a ride.

Coming next in the series: A trolley company pitches VIA on an all-electric fleet and an ambitious routing map that goes north-south, east-west, and reaches many of the major venues inside Loop 410.

*Featured/top image: Denver’s 16th Street free MallRide. Courtesy of Denver RTD. 

Related Stories:

Rey Saldaña Drops His Keys and Boards the Bus

Vision Zero: Making San Antonio’s Streets Safe

Transportation Pieces Take Shape for VIA, Comprehensive Plan

Commentary: Charter Amendment Derails San Antonio’s Transportation Future

Commentary: Transportation is a Quality of Life Issue

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.