An Amtrak train awaits passengers at Sunset Station. For more than 20 years the city has tried to rally support for more rail transit projects with no luck.
An Amtrak train awaits passengers at Sunset Station. For more than 20 years the city has been unsuccessful in rallying support for more rail transit projects. Credit: Valérie Eiseler / San Antonio Report

Around a snack-filled table inside of a vintage train car at San Antonio’s Texas Transportation Museum, 12 members of San Antonians for Rail Transit ranging in age from five to 70 met in early December for the first time in person, outside of the restraints of a Zoom room. 

“We do have Amtrak, but we’re the largest city without a transit program beyond buses,” said SART founder Jesse Harasta. “Frankly, the people of SA aren’t ready to support rail yet. Our work is to convince them.”

With a background in academia and municipal organizing in his former home of New York state, Harasta began the group on Facebook in June, advocating for expanding public rail transit. 

He said he was inspired to take action after reading about the turbulent history of efforts to broaden services in the region. 

“Projects in the past were driven by city bureaucracy. Without a grassroots backing, all of that effort failed,” Harasta said of two attempts — one in 2000 and one in 2014 — to add rail service to San Antonio. 

Voters in May of 2000 voted down a $1.5 billion, 53-mile light rail system that was proposed as part of VIA’s Transit 2025 Plan. The ballot asked voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax for light rail be added to VIA’s current half-cent sales tax.

Fourteen years later, City Council withdrew its participation in a $280 million urban streetcar plan by VIA. Council then reallocated $32 million in city funds previously pledged to the project. 

Then a charter amendment approved by voters in 2015 made it so voter approval would be required for any proposed streetcar or light rail project in the city or through the city.

San Antonio has since become the fastest-growing city in the country, expecting to add 1 million new residents by 2040, which would increase the need for a public transportation option beyond VIA’s bus system.

‘A more humane place to live’

Harasta describes the group’s short-term goals as advocating for better Amtrak services between Texas cities and restoring The Espee (formerly Sunset Station) in the St. Paul Square district as a public meeting and pedestrian space rather than a place mostly known as home to nightclub 1902. 

In the long term, the group wants to see commuter trains and light rail established in the city. 

In Harasta’s words, the group’s top goal is to make the region “a more humane place to live,” citing San Antonio’s car dependence as contributing to its drunk driving epidemic, traffic fatalities, road construction woes and increasing urban sprawl. 

“It’s a multi-year project. I have no illusions about how big of a challenge this is,” he said.

Ric Galvan, a local organizer said he has hope for younger city politicians — including City Councilmembers Teri Castillo (D5), Mario Bravo (D1) and Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) — to engage city leaders in discussion on public transit and how it relates to climate change and other issues. 

“Our local leaders may finally listen to new folks, and we can’t get rail without a public vote,” Galvan said. “Among residents — especially low-income, disabled and minority communities — we have long known that buses aren’t enough.”

VIA Metropolitan Transit is developing an Advanced Rapid Transit corridor project that would run from the San Antonio International Airport, down San Pedro Avenue, through downtown and to the Missions area. The high-frequency fixed-route service “would operate much like light rail in other cities, but at a fraction of the cost to build,” said Rachel Benavidez, vice president of communications and strategy at VIA.

Benavidez said the ART corridor is expected to be operational in 2027.

Engaging local government 

Harasta said like any new group, SART is still figuring out the details of its organizing strategies, outreach materials and research initiatives. 

“We’re doing the work of base organizing, and we’re starting to lobby the city council,” he said. 

Another possible hurdle, he notes, is Toyota’s and Valero’s long history of financial influence on the city.

“All other major Texas cities have some form of rail transit,” Harasta said. “If we don’t push for it, other cities will be in our place.”

Galvan, who himself doesn’t have a car and relies on VIA services, said the city, county and VIA need to collaborate on the planning and funding that any future rail project would require. 

“SA shies away from anything too drastic, but before we know it, it will be 2050 and we’ll be even more behind.”

Karly Williams

Karly is a San Antonio-based freelance writer covering arts, culture, law, labor and business. Having written and worked for multiple Ohio and South Texas publications and media companies, she is a graduate...