San Antonio Can't Decide If It's Building Streetcars or Light Rail

The city is locked in a bewildering debate, with transit funding at stake.

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Flickr/Zolk, JoeThePhotog

In 2004, San Antonio residents overwhelmingly approved a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for local transportation projects. The money could be used for any number of purposes — from road upgrades to "advanced transit services" — with the exception of light rail. Voters shot down a light rail project several years earlier, and VIA Metropolitan Transit, the agency in charge of the funds, promised not to pursue another one.

Fast-forward a decade. That decision is at the heart of a bewildering debate over whether "streetcars" and "light rail" are the same thing. VIA has planned a 5-mile streetcar system for downtown San Antonio that's scheduled to open by 2017. Opponents contend that none of the sales tax funds (known as Advanced Transportation District funds) should help pay for it under the original "light rail" stipulation.

Distinguishing between light rail and streetcar isn't always easy. Both modes can run through downtown, and the cars themselves often have similar exteriors. The distinction rests partly on right-of-way, with modern U.S. streetcars typically sharing the road with cars, and light rail using an exclusive lane. Stop spacing also matters: streetcars make close, local stops downtown; light rail often stretches beyond the core into the suburbs, with stops spaced far apart.

On paper, San Antonio's system certainly seems more streetcar than light rail. Besides being called a streetcar, the project has all the symptoms. It will stick to downtown neighborhoods and make local stops. It will operate in mixed traffic beside cars. It will likely connect to two downtown transit centers served by buses, for riders who want to reach other parts of the metro.

Map via VIA Metropolitan Transit

But opposition has been building for a couple years among residents and public officials [PDF]. The situation crested recently when VIA submitted a proposal to sell ATD bonds to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, as per protocol. Right around that time, State Senator Donna Campbell asked Abbott to investigate the situation and see that none of the ATD funds would go toward the streetcar project, given the light rail debate.

Shortly thereafter, two vocal streetcar opponents filed a lawsuit along similar grounds, an effort that froze any ruling on the bond sale. The suit targeted VIA's plans to use some of money from ATD-backed bonds to upgrade San Antonio's two downtown transit centers. Those centers presently serve bus riders, but since the streetcar network will pass by, opponents called the improvements a "surreptitious attempt" to circumvent the light rail debate.

Charlie Gonzalez, VIA's chief of public engagement, tells Cities that the improvements planned for the transit centers had nothing to do with the streetcar, but rather would have gone toward improving bus transit. He says VIA made two bond offerings: one backed by ATD funds to pay for the transit center improvements, and another backed by non-ATD funds to go toward the streetcar. He adds that VIA already has all the money in hand for the first phase of streetcar development, and that no ATD funds are involved. 

"The basis of the lawsuit was that because the streetcar project is going to run by the transit centers ... that therefore it's part and parcel of the streetcar project," he says. "It is not."

The precise difference between streetcars and light rail may not be important to those opposing VIA's plans. State Senator Campbell's recent complaint to the attorney general reportedly stated that ATD funds should only be used "to improve San Antonio's roads," even though the law that created the ATD sales tax doesn't impose that restriction. What's being truly opposed here may just be rail projects in general, whatever their form.

"For some folks, if it's on a rail, it's rail," says Gonzalez.

Attorney General Abbott rejected VIA's bond sales — a move that caught the agency by surprise, since Abbott had issued preliminary approval for them. The streetcar lawsuit was immediately dropped, with the opponents saying they got what they wanted.

Gonzalez says VIA is considering whether to use an alternative avenue through the court system to get approval for the bond sales. For now, he sees a situation rife with irony. For one thing, the streetcar opponents who claim to be fighting for taxpayers are actually costing the city money to deal with the lawsuits and the bond delay. Beyond that, the real losers at the moment are not streetcar advocates at all but the bus riders who use the transit centers.

"We've tried to make that point," says Gonzalez, "but I'm not sure people are listening."

Top image:  Charlotte Light Rail (left) via Flickr user Joe the Photog; Portland Steetcar (right) via Flickr user Zolk

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