San Antonio is looking to Portland for inspiration as it contemplates a streetcar system.
In the 1990s, driven by a plan to infuse the inner city with new residents, transit advocates drew up plans to link several districts by streetcar and encourage dense, walkable, mixed-use development designed around the rail line.
As it turns out, the little streetcar line — four miles from end to end — is an economic powerhouse, according to Portland officials. They say some $3.5 billion has been invested within two blocks of the streetcar line’s footprint. More than 10,000 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office space have been built in the same area.
San Antonio officials are looking to replicate that.
Henry Muñoz, VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board chairman, said he expects the agency to break ground in two or three years and will announce in the next month a citizens advisory committee to help guide the creation of a starter streetcar system.
“It’s something that could have potentially enormous impact on the city center of San Antonio,” he said.
While the idea of streetcars in San Antonio is in its infancy, Muñoz envisions lines running both north-south and east-west, connecting some of the city’s great cultural centers, sports facilities and public institutions. From Mission San José, a line could run north, to the southern border of Alamo Heights. And a perpendicular line could run from the AT&T Center on the East Side to Our Lady of the Lake University on the West Side.
Muñoz said he’s uncertain how much could be built initially because of the expense.
During conversations in Portland, San Antonio leaders rattled off a number of key sites that potentially could be accessed by a streetcar system: Southtown, HemisFair Park, the Convention Center, the River Walk, the Alamo, Municipal Auditorium, Market Square, Museo Alameda del Smithsonian, several college campuses, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Alamodome and even Fort Sam Houston.
Any site accessible by streetcar would stand to benefit from the line, including the Museo Alameda, for which Muñoz was a driving force, and the Pearl Brewery, whose owner had representatives on the Portland trip.
In a joint effort between VIA and the Downtown Alliance, the Inner-City Rail Circulator Study is under way as well.
The feasibility study, due to be released this fall, will help determine whether San Antonio can support a system, how much it would cost and where it would be aligned. But it’s clear that local officials aren’t waiting for the results to move forward on planning.
There used to be a streetcar system in the early part of last century that ran up Broadway to Alamo Heights, past where Brackenridge Park now is. In addition to being historically true, it just makes sense. I hope they dare to think big about this. Which means thinking about more than just streetcars.
It’s clear there’s been a shift in thinking among local leaders, who in the past have advocated for light rail. They say a streetcar system, which is smaller in scale and cost, could prove to be a gateway to larger projects for San Antonio.
A starter system would allow people to “kick the tires” and get used to rail, which could lead to support for larger light rail and commuter lines that move more people longer distances.
For now, San Antonio will remain the largest city in the country without rail. The notion makes Muñoz cringe, but he sees San Antonio at a crossroads.
“People recognize that we’re at a critical juncture for our city’s future,” he said. “We have to provide them with an environment that helps them shift their thinking. That’s the moment we’re living in today.”
Taking this approach, and focusing on the area in and around downtown seems like a good idea for starters, though if the hope is to eventually incorporate light rail, I hope they leave themselves room for dedicated right of way. Part of the problem now, as the story notes, is that San Antonio isn’t very dense, and it has been resistant to density, though new Mayor Julian Castro is a fan. Maybe they can use this process to help them do mixed-use and transit-oriented development in a way that Houston still hasn’t quite figured out. I wish them luck in getting it done.
On a related note, I see that Dallas may be catching streetcar fever as well. Dallas of course already has a successful rail system in place, so this would be an extension of that. They may have an easier time getting it off the ground as a result.