Heartland Institute: San Antonio Streetcar Project Would Set City ‘On Dangerous Fiscal Path’

Published October 18, 2011

The San Antonio City Council is expected this week to vote on a plan by VIA Metropolitan Transit to create a battery-powered street car service.

The following statement, from Jeff Judson – a senior fellow and director at The Heartland Institute, a member of the Olmos Park City Council, and former president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation – may be used for attribution. For additional comments, please refer to the contact information below.

“The proposed streetcar project being considered for funding by the San Antonio City Council this Thursday will set our city on a dangerous fiscal path. Rail transit is predicated on the availability of federal funds, which are not likely to be available.

“Rail transit is also predicated on the success of rail spurring economic development, but objective research shows that little or no development will occur without significant additional taxpayer subsidies to entice developers to invest in the area. Rail alone does not induce development.

“Rail transit is predicated upon capital cost estimates that are used to obligate taxpayer funds. But comprehensive international research indicates that rail construction projects cost from 40 percent to 100 percent more than promised in nine of ten cases – thereby ruining the fiscal equations that local budgets are constructed upon. The cost escalation of the DART light rail system, for example, has been substantial.

“Local funds available for buses, and for Bus Rapid Transit – which is five times more cost-effective in moving and attracting transit riders – will be cannibalized to pay for the voraciously expensive rail system. As bus fares increase and bus service is reduced, transit ridership will drop. This is the experience in other light rail metropolitan areas.

“For instance, despite more than doubling the number of miles of light rail in Dallas, 3,700 fewer commuters rode the light rail system in 2010 than in 2000. And in Houston, which added light rail more recently, 2,700 fewer commuters were riding the transit system to work in 2010 compared to 2000. Over the same period, San Antonio, which concentrated on improving its bus service, experienced no decrease in transit commuting and has a transit work trip market share 50 percent above that of Dallas-Fort Worth, with its far more expensive DART and Trinity Rail express systems.

“Our mayor, our county judge, and others have this burning desire to be a member of the ‘Light Rail Country Club.’ The initiation fee runs in the billions of dollars, and the monthly dues come at the expense of other important public investments. It makes no economic sense, but it supposedly says that we are a world-class city.

“San Antonio is already a world-class city. This will put that reputation in jeopardy by harming our ability to fund mobility in the future.”

Jeff Judson
Senior Fellow, Director
The Heartland Institute
[email protected]

The Heartland Institute is a 27-year-old national nonprofit organization with offices in Chicago, Illinois; Washington, DC; Austin, Texas; Tallahassee, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio. Its mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. For more information, visit our Web site or call 312/377-4000.