San Antonio.- More than a hundred people attended VIA Metropolitan Transit’s first public information session for the San Antonio streetcar project on Wednesday evening at Sunset Station.
Some members of the public were excited about a streetcar; others felt the streetcar would not be the needed silver bullet to bring people downtown. Daniel Day, a cyclist, said many who prefer to bike are very concerned.
“I was hoping they would address the placement of the streetcars. If the rails are placed to the sides of the street, cyclists will be in danger,” he said.
The polished PowerPoint presentation suggested potential routes and timelines for the different steps to complete the project, sometime in the next four or five years.
After the meeting, Jeff Arndt, VIA interim president/CEO, explained the purpose for the conference is to “determine and solidify the path of the streetcar. The public should make their concerns known to the planners.”
As for gathering public input, the process was informal, mostly restricted to selecting routes already drawn on the maps and suggesting streetcar stops with stickers. While citizens could not formally record their comments in a “Citizens to be Heard” format, comment cards were available with ample room for remarks.
Still, many of the tough questions La Prensa asked a year ago about the streetcar, dedicated parkland, environmental impact studies and the federally-required Section 4(f) review designed to protect parkland and historic resources during planning stages of transportation projects, remain unanswered.
City seeks to change the rules
We also specifically asked Arndt and representatives from consultant HDR Engineering Inc. after the meeting if they could explain whether the city’s proposed streetcar path through the park would cross over dedicated parkland and about the status of required environmental assessments. Responses ranged from “no comment” to “we don’t know.”
But those in charge of the project must know a little something because La Prensa learned the city was trying to get help to deal with the question of dedicated parkland in Hemisfair. Generally, any disposition of dedicated parkland (which technically belongs to the citizens of San Antonio) must go to the people for a voteand at the moment there are at least 14.97 acres of documented dedicated parkland in Hemisfair.
Thursday night in an exclusive interview, State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-SA) explained he was recently approached by the city about a very specific request for legislation regarding Hemisfair. The idea is to authorize City Council to make decisions about the dedicated parkland in Hemisfair without having to go to the voters.
“It [legislation] would allow them to reorganize green space without decreasing the amount of existing green space. My response to them is that it needs to be a technical fix with community support,” Villarreal explained. For now, Villarreal said no bill has been filed and nothing is imminent.
Streetcar controversy continues
Hot sparks flew all day between opposing camps before VIA’s event.
Early in the day, critics of the multi-million dollar streetcar project, touted by city and county officials as the engine for economic development in downtown San Antonio, suggested a deal made recently to trade funding sources with the Texas Dept of Transportation (TxDOT) amounted to nothing more than a run around the voters.
In an exchange earlier this month, TxDOT provided $92 million from the Texas Mobility Fund general obligation bond proceeds to VIA to use for the streetcar -- and VIA and the county replaced the state’s money with $92 million from the ATDgenerated revenue.
Jeff Judson, former Olmos Park City Councilman and director and senior fellow of the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization that promotes freemarket solutions for social and economic problems, said:
“When voters approved the ATD (Advanced Transportation District) sales tax, they were promised those funds would never be used for light rail (or streetcars), so our officials laundered the money with TxDOT to avoid the legal challenges. But just trading the funding source for the $92 million they need to create this transportation boondoggle doesn’t change the fact that they are ultimately using the ATD revenue to fund the streetcars.”
George Rodriguez of the South Texas Alliance for Progress, who called the press conference, agrees.
“Swapping the ATD taxes for TxDOT funds is ‘money laundering’ -- it’s still a violation of trust with the voters -- we want common sense approaches,” Rodriguez said.
During the early morning press conference on Grayson and Broadway, the streetcar opponents released “The Streetcar Fantasy,” a policy brief prepared and presented by Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute who echoed some concerns we’ve heard from readers.
Many west side residents (the heaviest users of VIA transportation) are concerned the streetcarwill not address the needs of those trying to reach better-paying jobs in northern San Antonio. Other readers believe the estimated price of $40 million per mile for 5 miles of track is exorbitant.
According to O’Toole, streetcars don’t spur economies; taxincremental financing and subsidies are the tools that attract development. He also suggests streetcars use enough electricity to get around that the notion streetcars are green is a fallacy because most electricity in Texas is produced using fossil fuels.
Regarding Portland, a city that successfully implemented streetcars, he is certain the streetcar doesn’t deserve any credit for the city’s revitalization.
“Portland looks pretty nice – but Portland was the first city in America to have a microbrewery in 1980, by 1990 it was a dozen … today there’s more than 50… Beer has more to do with economic development in downtown Portland than transit by far,” he added.
VIA and the county respond
In the afternoon, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and VIA Board Chair Henry Muñoz III sought to quash the criticism of VIA’s modern street car plan with another press conference.
The officials believe the critics are wrong, politically motivated and spreading “disinformation.”
“… simply saying no is not the right solution for the citizens of San Antonio – at some point you have to listen to what people, our own people, have to say and you have to take a step forward. And that’s what we are going to do,” Muñoz said.
Wolff also strongly disagreed with the charge that streetcars are not green.
“It [the streetcar] is environmentally better for us,” he said.
To read O’Toole’s report about streetcars, visit heartland.org/policy-documents/streetcar-fantasy. To learn more about the San Antonio streetcar project, visit www.smartwaysa.com.
Angela Covo is a reporter for La Prensa de San Antonio. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.