[Originally published on May 10, 2014.]
Reading Red McCombs’ recent negative streetcar commentary published in the Express-News and then the subsequent revelation that the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity group have entered the streetcar fray has prompted me to reiterate my support of the VIA streetcar project.
I had the privilege of serving on the Streetcar Commission several years ago and find it incredible that there is still debate about the efficacy of this project. After untold numbers of community meetings and input sessions, VIA was able to commendably collaborate to the fund the project.
While there was debate about the streetcar routes, this is to be expected when a starter project is limited in scope, and funding, and must take many factors into consideration. Ultimately, practical routes were selected to connect to north, south, east and west neighborhoods including links to the Westside Multimodal Transit Center and the Robert Thompson Transit Center.
McCombs’ first question is “Why are we doing this?”
Well, anyone who has traveled south on Broadway from Hildebrand to downtown will certainly have noticed the residential, retail, office and cultural development that is occurring along that corridor and in nearby neighborhoods. The extension of the river north is certainly a factor but so is the expectation of a modern streetcar linking these new developments to each other and to downtown. The fixed nature of streetcars makes investment in properties more appealing.
Just recently, it was reported that Austin-based Argyle Residential will be developing yet another 300 apartment units at Broadway and East Jones. And then there’s the growing congestion in the center city which streetcars will help ease with the reduction of traditional bus traffic along with the demand for more parking. VIA’s starter streetcar system will easily connect with our large and comprehensive bus system and will also accommodate future expansions from the center city.
McCombs asks “Whom does it benefit?’
Most importantly, this is not about just accommodating the tourists. I would be the last person to support streetcars if they were primarily targeted to the visitor industry. The streetcar project is aimed at facilitating transportation for San Antonians. As more residents choose to move closer to downtown, many would like to eliminate or reduce their dependence on automobiles.
Millennials, in particular, are opting for commuting options other than single occupancy vehicles, probably much to McCombs’ chagrin. Streetcars are an efficient and attractive means of connecting close-in neighborhoods and downtown. If tourists use the streetcars that will just further enhance revenue for local businesses and ease congestion of additional automobiles in the core.
McCombs’ final question is “Given the enormous costs, are there not other more important needs?”
My question is: “Why isn’t a state-of-the-art inner city streetcar system one of the most important needs in a growing, urban city?”
Yes, the initial investment is substantial but nothing like the cost of light rail. Streetcars are a clean technology, cost less to operate while carrying three times as many riders as buses, and streetcar vehicles last 30 years versus 10 years for buses. Downtown streets can’t be widened and parking garages in the center city are very expensive to construct. Streetcars will reduce regular bus traffic and provide an alternative to the automobile. And, yes, there will be disruption during construction but that is the case with any infrastructure project and that hasn’t stopped us from continuing to invest in highway and street projects throughout the city.
Finally, we should be highly suspicious of outside forces such as the Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity jumping onto the anti-streetcar bandwagon. They are not acting in the best interests of our city but are looking for a political issue they can use against Mayor Castro and County Judge Wolff. Just like the San Antonio Firefighters Association joining forces with the San Antonio Tea Party to rally against the streetcar, these disparate groups have their own special interests that have nothing to do with the public transportation needs of San Antonio.
Please think twice about signing their petitions that would essentially prohibit streetcars or just about anything else requiring the use of “…any street, highway, alley, park, public place of any other real property of the city … unless expressly approved by a majority vote of the qualified electors of the city in an election distinctly specifying such purpose separate from any other subject or purpose.”
Really? Since when do we vote on individual infrastructure projects?
Let your support for streetcars be heard by our elected officials. Encourage your neighbors to learn more and to not sign these misguided petitions. As the heart of the city grows stronger, benefits will accrue to the entire city through increased tax revenues to help support all of San Antonio.
*Featured/top image: Streetcar graphic by Jason Rodriguez / VIA.