San Antonio, notes Texas Public Radio, is “the largest city in the country without a rail system to move” its residents. As a result, the article implies, people are “stuck behind the wheel,” and the article’s headline asks, “Should San Antonio Reconsider Rail?”
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, of course, suggests that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But more important, the article is guilty of the Politician’s Fallacy, which is: “1. We have to do something [in this case, about congestion]. 2. This [rail] is something. 3. We have to do this [build rail].”
Before jumping to any conclusions, San Antonians should ask how well rail is moving people in other cities. The first point to note is that, when TPR says that San Antonio is the largest city not to have rail, there are only six larger cities to consider. We don’t think of San Antonio is being the nation’s seventh-largest city, but it is true because Texas cities have strong annexations powers, so tend to be much larger than cities elsewhere. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are also among the nation’s eleven largest cities.
The San Antonio urban area has about 1.9 million people today and, if it keeps growing at recent rates, will add 1.6 million more by 2040. VIA, the region’s transit agency, gets most of its money from a one-half-cent sales tax, so by 2040 it will get about 80 percent more tax revenues.
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The agency is hungry for more, however, so it has written a long-range plan called Vision 2040. Actually, to call this a plan is generous; it is actually more of a sales brochure, as it doesn’t consider any alternatives, any impacts of the proposal, or any real information about costs. Instead, it merely says that it wants increased taxes to provide bus-rapid transit on exclusive bus lanes and possibly light rail–in other words, transit infrastructure that might have been useful a few decades ago, but certainly won’t be useful a few decades from now.
Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).
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By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.
Last week, San Antonio voters overwhelming approved of a measure forbidding the city’s transit agency from building any rail transit lines without voter approval. While that seems like a no brainer, opponents contended that it was unfair to single out rail transit for such a measure just because rail cost 50 to 100 times as much as bus transit.
Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is still trying to decide whether to cancel the $2.5 billion Purple Line (not to mention Baltimore’s $3 billion Red Line). Rail supporters were disappointed that he cut tolls on bridges and toll roads, since they figured that any surplus tolls should have gone to their pet project.
Rail supporters are claiming that the evil Cato Institute is leading a major campaign to undermine their plans. In fact, with the exception of the Antiplanner and maybe one other person, no one at Cato has put much thought into the Purple Line, as they are working on such relatively trivial things as reducing conflict in the Mideast, improving health care, and keeping government from watching everything we do.
After being in office just one week, San Antonio’s new mayor, Ivy Taylor, proposed Monday that the city withdraw the $32 million it had promised to build a new $280 million, 5.9-mile streetcar line. Moreover, she persuaded Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the region’s leading streetcar proponent, to join her in declaring the streetcar plan dead. Wolff has previously said that he is too busy waging a re-election campaign against a streetcar opponent to campaign in favor of the streetcar plan.
A planner’s fantasy of what a streetcar would look like near the Alamo in San Antonio.
The announcements come amid controversy over an initiative petition submitted by streetcar opponents asking that voters be allowed to approve or reject the plan in November. The city has tentatively rejected most of the signatures, saying they were improperly collected. The petitioners have a legal opinion saying the city is reading the law incorrectly. The new mayor may be hoping that, in announcing the plan is dead, the demand for a vote will go away. If the city rejects the petitions now and opponents go to court, the measure may have to go to voters in a later election.
San Antonio streetcar opponents submitted a petition today to allow voters to decide whether the region’s transit agency, VIA, should spend $280 million on a 5.9-mile streetcar. They needed about 20,000 signatures, and submitted well over 26,000 of which they personally pre-verified nearly 24,000.
Streetcar skeptics hold a press conference on the steps of San Antonio’s city hall as they present signatures for a ballot measure requiring that voters approve any streetcars built in city streets or rights of way. Photo by Michael Dennis.
Unfortunately, this petition still has several hurdles to leap. First, the city is claiming that signature gatherers didn’t follow proper procedures; the petitioners claim they did, and that the procedures the city wants them to follow only apply to recall petitions. Second, even if the measure makes it to the ballot and is approved by voters, VIA argues that it won’t be bound by the results.
A few weeks ago, President Obama nominated San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to be the next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. While some suggest that this may be bad for Castro’s future political career, he wouldn’t be the first mayor to be tapped for a cabinet position and then return home to be elected to higher office.
What seems more certain is that Castro’s departure from San Antonio weakens political support for the city’s misbegotten streetcar plan. A couple of years ago, when the Antiplanner wrote a critique of a proposed San Antonio steetcar, proponents believed they had everything wired to build the line.
Opponents, however, hammered away at the proposal, arguing, among other things, that when voters rejected any funding for light rail in 2000, they were also rejecting streetcars. At that time, and until just a couple of years ago, the Federal Transit Administration classified streetcars and light rail as the same thing.
Last week, the San Antonio Express News published a pair of op eds for and against construction of a downtown streetcar. In opposition was Representative Lamar Smith, whose congressional district includes parts of both San Antonio and Austin.
A streetcar, he wrote, would be expensive, impractical, and would “likely make congestion worse.” “There are better uses for the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars now slated for streetcars,” Smith observed, adding that most residents of San Antonio seem to oppose it and should at least have the chance to vote on it.
Writing in support of the streetcar was planner Bill Barker of Imagine San Antonio, a smart-growth group. Barker was previously the Senior Management Analyst in the City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability. Barker’s argument in favor of the streetcar was simple: the people who oppose the streetcar are evil, so should be ignored.
Garl Boyd Latham, of the Texas Association of Railroad Passengers, predicts that San Antonians will be “pleased by streetcars once they are running.” His response to the Antiplanner’s op ed critiquing the city’s streetcar plan basically amounts to, “don’t confuse me with the facts; I know what I believe.”
To be precise, Latham says, “An astute man can prove anything he wanted with facts and figures,” then argues that the Antiplanner “manufactured an artificial reality through the manipulation of facts.”
One of those supposed manipulations is my claim that streetcars cost more than buses. Latham admits the capital costs are high but claims that, once built, streetcars have “a minimum life expectancy of a half-century or longer,” which will be surprise to the Federal Transit Administration (or just about anyone in the transit industry), which says streetcar vehicles last about 25 years, and other streetcar infrastructure lasts no more than 30 years. Not even counting maintenance, FTA data clearly show that streetcars cost far more to operate–either per vehicle mile or per passenger mile–than buses.
The Antiplanner spent much of last week in San Antonio releasing a review of the city’s plans for a downtown streetcar. The trip turned out to be a lot more hectic (and with a lot less Internet access) than I expected, which is why I made so few posts last week.
Sometimes I wonder if streetcars are tests of intelligence or gullibility, as they are such bad ideas it is hard to believe that cities are falling all over themselves to fund them. As I point out in my report, 100 years ago, both streetcars and automobiles went at average speeds of about 8 miles per hour. Today, autos routinely cruise at 80 mph (at least in Texas), but San Antonio’s proposed streetcar will still go at just 8 mph.
The Antiplanner’s report for San Antonio is called “The Streetcar Fantasy,” partly because the feasibility study for the San Antonio streetcar is filled with fabrications and imaginary data. For example, page 68 the study discusses how the Boise streetcar was financed and page 69 discusses how the Arlington, Virginia streetcar contributed to economic development–yet neither Boise or Arlington have streetcars.