Stuck Behind The Wheel: Should San Antonio Reconsider Rail?

Jan 3, 2017

As San Antonio prepares to add more than 1.6 million new residents it holds the distinction of being the largest city in the country without a rail system to move them. 

This week Texas Public Radio’s Growing Pains Project is looking at options in a series of stories we’re calling, “Stuck Behind the Wheel.”

In 2000 and again in 2014 opposition stopped San Antonio rail projects in their tracks. 

Rail, however, is still included in San Antonio’s long-range planning documents.  It’s popular in some other Texas cities and survey show it’s also popular with citizens here.

At the Wonderland Mall Transit Center in San Antonio, a lot of commuters, including Tamara Brown, say the VIA bus service they’re picking up is pretty good.

“I think the bus service is great.  They’re like clockwork.  

VIA bus rider Tamara Brown would like to see rail service in San Antonio.
Credit Shelley Kofler / Texas Public Radio

Then we asked Brown a question the City posed in a recent survey:  If you had $100 to spend on improving San Antonio transportation, how would you spend it?  Brown could have said, “Just give me more bus service.”  Instead she said this:

“I would put it towards rail because every city, every state can use a rail line.  It’s faster.  It’s much quicker, more efficient.” 

SURVEY SHOWS SUPPORT FOR RAIL

A lot of San Antonio residents answering the city survey for the SA Tomorrow Plan also preferred rail to bus. 

They said they’d spend $30 out of the $100 on rail- almost the same as the $32 they’d spend on roads.  They’d only devote $12 to buses.

That doesn’t surprise VIA President and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Arndt who says transportation professionals acknowledge a “rail bias.”  He says some drivers will get out of their cars to ride a train but they won’t board a bus.

“My experience is the thing that makes rail more attractive and feel safer is you know it’s going to stay on a rail.  You don’t have to worry that it’s going to turn a corner and you may find yourself in a place you didn’t expect to go,” Arndt explained. 

Arndt says interest in rail comes from a lot of people moving into San Antonio who’ve lived in cities with that have it.  Tamara Brown, for example, grew up riding trains in Chicago.

In Texas, Dallas, Houston and Austin all provide some level of rail service.

LESSONS FROM DALLAS ON RAIL

In fact, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, known as DART, has the largest light rail system in the country with 92 miles of track.   DART’s Vice President of Government Affairs Michael Miles helped launch the system almost 30 years ago and says it’s a testament to the old adage -if you first you don’t succeed, keep trying.

“There’s always opposition at the outset,” Mile explained as he glanced at the walls of his office, which are filled with anti-DART t-shirts, bumper stickers and placards that document Dallas’ battle for rail.

DART's Michael Miles says once light rail service began the public supported it.
Credit Shelley Kofler / Texas Public Radio

Miles remembers going to voters in 1988 for permission to issue long-term debt so DART could build rail quickly. 

“In 1988 there were those who said it’s not cost effective; it won’t be used; it’s a bad or poor use of funding.  So the election as we put it to the public failed and failed miserably,” he remembers.

It took another eight years before the first train would roll out of a DART station.   He says that was a “game changer.”

“I think it launched us into the success we’ve had.  Literally, four years later we went back to the public for a vote for long term debt- extended debt- and it passed by more than 70 percent.  That gave us what we needed to hit the accelerator.”

Now DART’s downtown trains are nearly full during peak travel times.  Rail connects area hospitals, work centers, entertainment districts and DFW airport. State Farm Insurance chose to build a regional headquarters for 8,000 employees in suburban Richardson because of access to DART rail.

Miles says really good bus service would not have been enough to attract the company.

“No, they have said openly that (rail access) was a deciding factor for their relocation.”

SAN ANTONIO STILL CONSIDERING RAIL

San Antonio Councilman Ray Lopez says his city’s 2014 rail plan known as streetcar failed because citizens didn’t understand it was just the beginning of something much bigger.  

“There’s a large group of folks who never come downtown,” Lopez said.  “They live out in the suburbs and never come downtown, and those folks generally had the opinion this is a downtown tourist investment and it doesn’t really do anything for me.  “That was a misunderstanding, I think, of the intent of it.”

Proposed San Antonio streetcar route in 2013.
Credit City of San Antonio

Lopez is on the board of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) which considers options for funding transportation projects. He says rail proposals now included in long-range VIA and City plans would take drivers off busy corridors with trains that would travel from downtown to employment centers like Brooks City Base; the Medical Center; the University of Texas-San Antonio; and the San Antonio International Airport. 

Jeff Judson is among critics who helped kill previous San Antonio rail plans.  He’s still opposed.

“We looked at the ridership numbers the proponents put out.  They showed that very few people would ride it.  We’d spend a huge amount of money to building it- over $100 million a mile.  For that kind of money we should be adding road capacity that I think would do much more to reduce road congestion,” Judson said.  

Transportation experts say rail systems are more expensive than buses to operate, but trains can carry more passengers so the cost per passenger mile is often lower.

Whether San Antonio pushes forward with train travel, though, will ultimately be up voters because they’d have to approve it.

In Dallas, where citizens once said no, DART rail passengers like Toni Hill say neighborhoods are now clamoring for more.

“Yes, people were afraid of it,” she said remember voter rejection of rail funding more than two decades ago.  “They were afraid it would ruin their neighborhoods and bring their property values down.  And it’s done just the opposite.” 

Hill says people in her city want to live near the train.