Light rail for San Antonio? Even longtime backers have given up
Northbound U.S. 281 traffic approaches the Loop 1604 intersection during rush hour on Nov. 16, 2018. A long-range plan to deal with future vehicle gridlock includes modern trams and buses but contains only 38 words about light rail, which local leaders are dumping because of cost and local political headwinds.
Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News
Just before Christmas last year, the non-profit transportation study group, ConnectSA, unwrapped a glossy 25-page, 4,000-word report that proposed several new transportation options for the nation’s 7th largest city over the next three decades.
It promoted bus rapid transit, or BRT — essentially more frequent buses running in dedicated curbed lanes, often at intervals under 10 minutes. It recommended rubber-wheeled, trackless trams. It mentioned e-scooters, of course. It called for better sidewalks, more bike paths and HOV lanes, and nodded toward the not-quite-defined but sure-to-come world of driverless vehicles.
San Antonio needs them all, the report concluded.
Conspicuously absent - it literally got 38 words - was any serious discussion of light rail, a reliable but expensive technology that works in Dallas, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and throughout the developed world, but has failed twice to attract San Antonio voters.
“I emphasize there are no toll roads, no rail,” announced former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, one of three ConnectSA co-chairs, hoping to neutralize critics when the plan was unveiled. “San Antonio has indicated it’s not voting for rail, and maybe we’ve even leaped over rail with new technologies that are cheaper and faster to build.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an advocate of light rail as recently as 2016, was more emphatic.
“Light rail is a technology of the past,” he said after the report was released, noting that even a two-mile train across downtown would carry a $250 million price tag. “It costs so much for so little impact.”
Even Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a tireless rail devotee for decades, reluctantly agreed, suggesting that big American cities no longer can build new light rail systems because the Trump administration and Republican state legislatures have cut off funding for it.
All three men are lifelong liberals and uncomfortable being described as “anti-rail.” They love to take trains, in America and Europe, and will continue to pursue rail projects connecting cities, like an Austin-to-San Antonio route. But they say pragmatic politics in San Antonio, the lack of significant federal funding and the expected arrival of a million more residents by 2050 has forced them to look elsewhere for solutions to what is fast becoming a crippling transportation problem.
The local debate about transportation has been complex and polarized, with lines drawn in 2000, when light rail was voted down, and in 2015, when a charter amendment required a similar election for any future such proposal.
The current discussion promises to only get more heated as Nirenberg campaigns for reelection in May against his likely mayoral challenger, Councilmember Greg Brockhouse. Nirenberg promises that this year ConnectSA will conduct at least 100 community meetings about its research in anticipation of a November 2020 city-wide referendum to spell out transportation options and determine a funding mechanism, such as reallocating the existing sales tax, for most of them.
The first-term mayor has cautioned that his transportation strategy isn’t simply to reject rail, but to embrace several forms of mass transit — “multi-modal” is the jargon — that he believes would be dramatically cheaper, more efficient for a 500-square-mile city and more quickly built.
The city is now stuck with a bus-only approach to mass transit, but its decision almost 20 years ago not to make a massive investment in light rail may one day look prescient and advantageous, Nirenberg said.
“We might be able to build a system that is more future-proof, while other cities are locked into expensive solutions that have mixed results,” he said.
Not surprisingly, critics and agnostics abound.
Having failed as recently as two years ago to predict the scooter phenomenon in America, most urban planners and transit experts are cautious about predicting a fool-proof people-moving strategy for the next half-century.
“I would disagree that light rail is antiquated in all settings,” offered Kyle Shelton, the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, but added, “You definitely don’t want a vanity rail project where you spend a lot of money for something that goes six blocks.”
“I don’t think San Antonio should be wedded to any one new technology,” he said. “I don’t think the mode of transportation is as important as the quality of service, the frequency and how extensive the network of routes.”
And part of the solution must be to get state and federal policymakers to re-direct their funding away from highways that have cost hundreds of billions of dollars, “a massive money-suck,” Shelton said.
“We’ve got to change that, so that better solutions seem feasible.”
As examples, Shelton points to the massive U.S. 281 renovation in San Antonio from Loop 1604 to the Comal County line, which will cost nearly a half-billion dollars, and the $2.8 billion expansion of Katy Freeway in Houston that made it the world’s widest — and which simply attracted more cars and increased travel time.
Joel Kotkin, an urban designer who has studied mega-cities such as London, Mumbai and Mexico City, knows Texas and feels for San Antonio and its transit mess.
“My background is on the left. I’m not a Republican or conservative,” he said, by way of prefacing that he also thinks the time for light rail has come and gone.
“If you have unlimited funds to spend on stupid stuff, then go ahead and do it,” he said. “Los Angeles thought it would do great things. It didn’t, and if it won’t work in Los Angeles, it won’t work in San Antonio.”
Kotkin thinks light rail works best in densely-populated cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore or Boston, but that it’s been an over-hyped, over-budget failure in just about every other place in America, including Dallas, Houston and Sacramento.
There’s huge disagreement on this. Dallas moves about 100,000 people a day on its 93-mile system, Houston about 61,000. Toronto’s daily ridership is 287,000, Boston’s 204,000. But transit ridership overall fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States in 2017.
“San Antonio is showing unusual common sense,” Kotkin said. “Transit use is down in much of the country. More people are working at home. There are more jobs in the suburbs. You’ve got Lyft and Uber. Light rail is just one of those things that cities think they have to have to be considered a thoughtful place. It’s about as useful as a professional football team.”
Not everyone is jumping off the train, however.
“To suggest that San Antonio is against rail is just risible and silly,” said Councilman Manny Pelaez, a frequent ally of Nirenberg whose Northwest Side district runs from the Medical Center almost to Fair Oaks Ranch. “There is no major city on this planet that has fully managed its transportation problems without including rail as one of its tools.”
The charter amendment in 2015 was an expression of distrust in government, but “it wasn’t a suicide pact” and can be overturned, Pelaez said.
Richard Tangum, an architect and urban planner who teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio, considers Cisneros a friend and appreciates Nirenberg’s progressive credentials, but he calls it a mistake not to make light rail a significant part of San Antonio’s future plans.
“I don’t think VIA presented the first rail proposal (in 2000) very well,” Tangum said. “We have to retune the conversation, so that people can see the long-range forecast. Light rail going down the middle of Broadway would be fabulous, or running into the new UTSA campus downtown. That’s what people have to visualize.”
“I think San Antonio is gun shy because of past experiences,” he said, “but a lot of people thought it would only benefit a small number of people downtown, and the suburbs thought it offered them very little. Dallas had the foresight to build a comprehensive system - now with 90 miles of routes -- and it has paid huge dividends for them.”
Sipping a coffee at a Starbucks on Broadway, Nirenberg listened to descriptions of successful light rail in Dallas and Denver and closed his eyes for a moment, as though he has heard it before.
“Look, would people love the Denver or Dallas light rail system if we could just magically plop it down on San Antonio?” he asked. “Yes, they would. But in order for the public to support a comprehensive reform of its transportation system … we have to have as much impact as possible over as much geography as possible in as short of time as possible.”
In other words, Nirenberg suggests that the non-light-rail solutions, like BRT systems and trackless trams now in use in Europe, China and Las Vegas, offer a more politically expedient promise for San Antonio — a cheaper civic sacrifice and a quicker pay-off for reducing traffic.
But when you ask planners to name a city in America that has turned from an auto-centric culture, as in big-city Texas, to something like a comprehensive, city-wide, BRT system, the response is usually a long pause. Parts of the Cleveland system, perhaps. There really are no American cities where BRT dominates the landscape in mass transit.
But there is in Brazil. Curitiba, a “green” state capital of 2.4 million people that planners have adored for decades, changed its auto-dependent culture in the 1980s with “pedestrianized” downtown streets and a BRT system made famous by its ingenious passenger-loading shelters. Popularized by its three-time mayor, Jaime Lerner, it allows riders to pre-load the bus by climbing up steps to enter a clear-walled cylinder to pay their fares in advance.
So, when the bus arrives, the two biggest obstacles to a speedy stop - climbing the bus steps and paying - are eliminated. Curitiba buses run on dedicated lanes and usually take only 16 to 19 seconds of “dwell time” per stop, compared to 29 seconds on one conventional bus system in the U.S. Buses arrive every three minutes or faster at most stops. Ridership increased 50 fold in 20 years and today a staggering 84 percent of Curitiba’s commuters use the system.
A host of other urban planning schemes - among them, high-density zoning within two blocks of bus stops, limited public parking downtown and employers offering transportation subsidies to workers - have helped Curitiba achieve a status as an urbane, pedestrian-friendly, clean-air model for the world.
Could it work in San Antonio?
“I will be a bad pundit and say, ‘I have no idea,’” said Christof Spieler, the director of technology and innovation at Morris Architects in Houston. “I think it is smart for San Antonio to build something adaptable, so that if you abandon it, it will be usable by driverless technology.”
But Spieler warns: “There is a long history in transit of being overly optimistic about new technologies. They’re often not as transformative as we thought. The first people who try it pay a lot to figure things out and sometimes it doesn’t end up as ‘the new thing’ at all. We should approach with caution.”