San Antonio Council Okays Streetcar Rail

Published October 31, 2011

The San Antonio City Council has approved a multi-million dollar battery-powered streetcar service that critics say could put the city on “a dangerous fiscal path.”

The council gave its approval to a plan by VIA Metropolitan Transit in mid-October with a 9-1 vote, with one member absent. It is expected to become operational sometime after 2013.

With $40 million of San Antonio funding, the city will begin immediately to design and build a transit station on the west side of the city and a second on the east side, as well as a park and ride center on U.S. 281, according to Thomas Marks, spokesman for Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who voted in favor of the project.

Substantial Federal Funding Needed

VIA will also need to obtain additional federal revenues to complete the project, which includes at least $65 million for related construction on the non-streetcar portion of the transit system.

“As the city continues to grow, it is important that we address our city’s transportation needs proactively,” said Councilwoman Chan, Dist. 9, in a statement. “Many people have asked me, ‘what would happen if VIA fails to secure the federal funding for the proposed streetcar routes?’ ‘Would the city give out more money?’ What I would say is that it would be another decision for another day with another vote.”

And that, in a nutshell, is one glaring problem with streetcar transit plans, said Jeff Judson, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute.

‘Fund Not Likely Available’

“Rail transit is predicated on the availability of federal funds, which are not likely to be available,” Judson said. “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.”

Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with The Cato Institute who specializes in urban growth, public land and transportation issues, finds that historically true.

“Portland built a parking garage next to the streetcar line and persuaded Whole Foods to move into a retail space next to the garage,” O’Toole said, in an email. “Then Portland claims that Whole Foods moved there because of the streetcar line. In fact, Whole Foods only moved there because of the parking garage.”

Streetcars, O’Toole continue, “are just a scam.”

Not all in San Antonio favor the plan, either.

“There was a contingency of folks who were at the [council] meeting and after the vote was taken, they said they were going to try and start a drive to vote out of office” the council members who passed the plan, Marks said.

Better Options Will Suffer

Meanwhile, other modes of transportation – like bus systems, which are several times more cost-effective in terms of attracting customers and providing reasonably priced transport, when compared to streetcars – will suffer, Judson said.

“Local funds available for buses . . . will be cannibalized to pay for the voraciously expensive rail system,” he said. “As bus fares increase and bus service is reduced, transit ridership will drop. This is the experience in other light-rail metropolitan areas.”

In Portland, O’Toole said, 9.8 percent of Portland commuters rode public transit before rail existed, according to 1980 Census Bureau figures. By 2000, when two rail lines were operations, public commuting dropped to 7.7 percent. A year later, Portland opened its streetcar line and a third light-rail line. And in 2004, the city opened a fourth light rail line. But by 2007, only 6.5 percent of commuters took transit to work.

Then in 2009, public transit participation in Portland saw a slight rise to 7.6 percent – but that was due largely to high gas prices, O’Toole found.

San Antonio is not Portland, but O’Toole said it doesn’t matter, adding that politics and personal greed are the fueling forces in streetcar development nationwide.

“The modern streetcar craze started in Portland and was initiated by a member of the city council,” he said. “After Portland built the first streetcar, he quit the council and took a job with a consulting firm named HDR. In this job, he travels around the country telling cities what a great success the Portland streetcar is and why they should build streetcars of their own. Of course, HDR expects to make huge profits helping to plan and engineer the streetcar lines.”