Why did VIA Metropolitan Transit’s streetcar project, five years and $17.2 million in the making, fail so suddenly last week? If Mayor Ivy Taylor is going to lead City Council and work with VIA to devise a new comprehensive transportation plan to bring to voters, one important task will be to look back and analyze why VIA’s streetcar project was derailed.
Some of the mistakes made along the way are obvious, but some of the missteps might go unrecognized. I am a big believer in streetcars, yet I also wrote two articles in the last year warning that VIA’s project was at risk.
A Failure in Leadership
2013 was not a good year for the VIA streetcar project. In July of that year, the Express-News disclosed that VIA Chairman Henry Muñoz III had purchased a near-Eastside building with business partners after voting to approve funding for streetcars, which would pass near the property.
In the scale of things, Muñoz, the successful non-architect owner of the architecture firm Muñoz & Company, didn’t have much to gain given his limited ownership and the wealth he already had accrued. But the high profile Democratic national fundraiser, popular in national Latino circles, is a lightning rod at home with a history of creating political messes dating back to his time as a political appointee under Gov. Ann Richards and more recently as the driving and controlling force behind the now-defunct Museo Alameda.
(Read more from September 11, 2013 on the Rivard Report: San Antonio Needs Streetcars, But First it Needs a New VIA Chairman)
Muñoz was promoted by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to serve as VIA chairman in 2008, as an enthusiastic advocate for multimodal transportation in a city with not much more than a bus system used mostly by the working class population. Equally important, Muñoz was a rising star in Washington Democratic political circles. City and county leaders believed he was San Antonio’s best shot at securing tens of millions of federal dollars targeted for cities building multimodal transportation systems. Muñoz, however, would prove to be a divisive leader, a page-one distraction.
What VIA really needed was a visionary CEO who could appeal to all communities served by the transit authority, and many thought San Antonio found that person in Keith Parker, who was hired with much fanfare from Charlotte, N.C. in 2009. Parker, however, was overshadowed by Muñoz and the board. Parker resigned after three years in 2012 to take the head job at Atlanta’s transit agency, undeniably a big step up nationally, but the highly-regarded African-American transit executive had been exploring his options for months, frustrated that he had the CEO title but not necessarily the job.
To this day, VIA remains board-driven. Parker was replaced by his number two, Jeff Arndt, who had come to VIA from Houston’s transit agency where light rail had been successfully introduced in a city with some of the worst traffic congestion and air quality in the country. Arndt has remained even more low profile than Parker, and the appointment of former City Manager Alex Briseño to replace Muñoz as chairman has ensured that VIA will remain more board than staff driven. When VIA decided to hold a “rally the troops” press conference Friday in the wake of the decision by the city and county to withdraw support for the streetcar project, it was Briseño, not Arndt, at the microphone addressing the media.
The media focus has remained on VIA’s board rather than its staff and long-range planning. VIA held what seemed like countless public meetings on the streetcar issue, yet its messaging remained one-dimensional and lacked creativity and spark. What VIA really needed was a dynamic marketing campaign to galvanize the city’s Millennials and others concerned about the city’s long-term air quality, carbon emissions, and worsening congestion. Lots of people want out of their cars and into modern mass transit, but VIA never galvanized them or captured their voices.
Routing Rooted in Controversy
The controversy over the Muñoz property holding and proximity of the streetcar route reached the point of absurdity as gun-shy VIA lawyers advised other trustees with any downtown property to join Muñoz in recusing themselves from voting on the prospective route choices being presented by staff. Rick Pych, president of business operations for the San Antonio Spurs, owned a unit at La Cascada Condominiums downtown while trustee Mary Cass Briseño, who is married to Alex (the two did not serve on the VIA board at the same time) owned a future retirement condo at La Vidorra downtown. Could people who lived or worked downtown no longer involve themselves in a project designed to serve downtown?
Streetcar supporters in the development community favored an extended north-south route that would connect the fast-developing Broadway corridor to downtown and into Southtown. If the revitalized San Antonio River had connected the city north and south in an exciting new way, then Broadway would be the surface artery doing the same.
Downtown interests wanted to see the streetcar line take in some east-west streets, while people in the visitor and convention economy wanted streetcars to ply the Convention Center, adjacent hotels and a soon-to-be redeveloped Hemisfair Park.
The final Phase One route managed to leave everyone somewhat disappointed for one reason or another. It didn’t go far enough north on Broadway to serve the Witte Museum and the Do Seum, which would open in 2015. It wouldn’t reach Brackenridge Park, much less the University of Incarnate Word. It didn’t cross into Southtown, much less reach the Blue Star. It swung west toward the Westside Multimodal Center instead of east to the Convention Center, downtown hotels, and Hemisfair Park.
Phase Two would run from the Westside Multimodal Center east along Cesar Chavez Boulevard to the Robert Thompson Transit Center near the Alamodome. As a mechanism for taking buses and bus riders out of downtown, the route made a lot of sense. As a streetcar route that others would ride from one destination to another, it seemed like a bust. Phase Two quickly came to be seen as a political compromise in a city too often defined by Anglo-Latino and Northside versus Southside, Westside and Eastside divisions.
(Read more from Jan. 18, 2014 on the Rivard Report: 10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars)
The truth was VIA planners simply didn’t have the dollars to extend the streetcar lines in ways that would have guaranteed higher ridership and economic development spread over a broader area of the urban core. A project that should have united progressive civic and business interests in the center city instead left people debating the fine print.
Farther north, suburban residents were increasingly stalled in worsening congestion, leading to demand for more highway spending to alleviate the Stone Oak area rush hour gridlock. Many of the same people were not frequent visitors downtown, and they began to see mass transit investment as favoritism for downtowners.
Hundreds of millions of tax dollars gathered citywide had been spent in the last decade expanding the suburban highway grid and connectors, but that spending received little scrutiny in the mainstream media. Suburban commuters treated continuous highway expansion like an entitlement.
The Downtown Business Community Stays on the Sidelines
Some in the development community wanted to see Broadway become a complete street at a fraction of the cost before ground was broken on a controversial and expensive streetcar line that would disrupt area businesses for months. Wouldn’t tree-shaded pedestrian ways and protected bike lanes accomplish the same goals?
It would fall to Centro San Antonio, led by CEO Pat DiGiovanni, a former deputy city manager, to convince business leaders and developers to contribute significant private sector funds to the project. Such contributions were necessary to give VIA sufficient working capital to do the job right, and also to demonstrate to the public that the business and development interests that would benefit most were willing to pay their fair share. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce commissioned a SABÉR study that projected billions of dollars in economic development spurred by the Phase One line over the first few decades. If that were true, wouldn’t the direct beneficiaries be willing to contribute millions now?
They weren’t. A frustrated DiGiovanni, serving in effect as the bridge between the center city business community and VIA and City Council, was outwardly doing everything possible to support the streetcar project. But it was becoming increasingly clear by the summer 2014 that support that once seemed broad was, in fact, only inches deep. Private sector contributions never materialized, and the Centro board grew increasingly divided over the merits of the project.
The Suburbs and a Petition Drive
The streetcar project became a useful target for any number of opposing forces. Suburban City Council candidates won favor with voters tired of Mayor Julián Castro’s Decade of Downtown, especially after losing the Pre-K For SA early childhood education election.
Tea Party politics, once confined to national and statewide races, now found a stronger foothold in local politics. An us vs. them kind of rhetoric began to define the conversation between suburban and downtown interests. The notion that downtown belonged to everyone in every part of the city seemed lost on more and more voters and more and more of the people elected to represent them.
County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, seeking to unseat County Judge Nelson Wolff in the Democratic primary, became an overnight streetcar opponent. Adkisson had previously voted with Wolff to support the streetcar project, but now he was reversing course. The Southside politician remained unappealing to Northside voters, however, and went down handily.
Former City Councilman Carlton Soules was another matter. Once seen as equally unlikely to pose a threat to Wolff’s re-election, Soules has used his opposition to the streetcar project much more effectively. He may not pose a credible threat to Wolff, but no one in the Wolff camp is taking any chances. The longtime incumbent is campaigning hard.
Bruising collective bargaining talks between the City and the San Antonio Police Officers Association over proposed cuts in the runaway costs of health care benefits for uniformed personnel led the firefighters union, awaiting its turn at the bargaining table, to jump headlong into the petition drive to force a vote on the November ballot. The union and an unusual set of allies were seeking 20,000 signatures, enough to force a vote that if successful would amend the city charter in a way that would handcuff elected leaders from making future transit decisions without first seeking voter approval. City and VIA attorneys said the challenge as superseded by state law protecting the City and VIA’s right to manage the public right of way, but the shrillness of the debate drowned out any consideration of legalities.
Firefighters angry over the prospect of benefits cuts in a new contract and the City’s $32 million contribution to the streetcar project, which would actually occur over a span of years, convinced many petition signers that the choice was between firetrucks and streetcars. It wasn’t at all, but the hardball tactics worked. Even now, with the streetcar project shelved, City Council faces a difficult Wednesday meeting where staff will present the arguments for accepting or rejecting the petition drive as legitimate and a success.
By last week, with former Mayor Julian Castro now in Washington as the new HUD Secretary, the parting words in his farewell speech defending the streetcar project and warning of “demagogues” seeking to divide the city, seemed all but forgotten.
Newly elected Mayor Ivy Taylor presided over her first executive session of the City Council on Monday, a meeting that led to the City pulling the plug on the project. County Judge Nelson Wolff followed suit and pledged to reverse the county’s commitment.
Move SA Forward, formed by streetcar supporters to counter opponents and promote VIA’s Long Range Comprehensive Transit Plan, found itself sidelined before the group’s first press conference could be held.
VIA’s streetcar project, years in the making and only two weeks away from completed environmental studies essential to winning federal funding, suddenly had ground to a dead stop.
*Featured/top image: 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.