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From San Antonio Express News-

Web Posted: 08/02/2009 12:00 CDT
S.A. could roll into future on streetcars
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A streetcar in Portland, Ore. The line averaged $12.9 million per track mile to construct. Part of the route is free and part requires a $2 all-day pass.
Why Portland chose streetcars

* Link neighborhoods with a convenient and attractive transportation alternative.
* Fit the scale and traffic patterns of existing neighborhoods.
* Provide quality service to attract new transit ridership.
* Reduce short inner-city auto trips, parking demand, traffic congestion and air pollution.
* Encourage development of more housing and businesses in the downtown core.

Source: Portland Streetcar
Track facts

* 4-mile loop comprising 8 miles of track
* Track is 8 feet wide and embedded in the street surface
* $103.15 million to build, including streetcars
* One streetcar costs $4 million to $5 million
* $4.9 million operating budget: $3 million from the regional transit agency; $1.6 million from the city; $300,000 from fares, sponsorships and promotions
* $3.5 billion in investment within two blocks of line
* Part of the route is free and part requires a $2 all-day pass
* Portland Streetcar operates 30,000 hours annually
* Electricity-powered system
* One streetcar holds at most 140 passengers
* GPS technology allows for real-time arrival information

Sources: Portland Streetcar and Oregon Iron Works Inc.

* Move It!: Josh Baugh writes about transportation

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By Josh Baugh - Express-News

PORTLAND, Ore. — Once 70 acres of deserted rail yards and contaminated land, the Pearl District, an inner-city neighborhood along this city’s busy streetcar line, has become one of the hottest places to live, work and play.

Officials hope to bring that same sort of transit — and revitalization — to the Alamo City as soon as possible.

In Portland, it didn’t happen by accident.

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.

Still, San Antonio leaders acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead.

The first major hurdle will be cobbling together funding. The Portland Streetcar line averaged $12.9 million per track mile to construct. And choosing a streetcar line’s path could become a heated political battle.

Streetcars run on tracks embedded in the road pavement and are powered by overhead electric lines. Because the tracks are flush with the street surface, cars and pedestrians can cross them at any point, unlike a rail line. San Antonio had streetcars until 1933.

Muñoz and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff were part of a delegation of local government and business leaders — from VIA, the mayor’s office and Silver Ventures, the owner of the Pearl Brewery — that went on a whirlwind fact-finding mission to Portland last week. Mayor Julián Castro was supposed to attend but didn’t because of illness.

The group spent Wednesday night and Thursday in meetings with people who made the streetcar line a reality. With its streetcar, light rail and commuter trains, Portland often plays host to delegates from other cities considering various transit models.

Streetcar visions

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.

VIA also has been looking at a rapid-bus line from downtown to the Medical Center, but that wouldn’t happen until 2012.

Wolff, who long has supported bringing rail to San Antonio, believes a streetcar system would help revitalize the East and West sides. And it appears that Castro is on board, too.

Responding to the goal of breaking ground in two to three years, Castro chuckled.

“That’s (Nelson Wolff’s) swan song,” he said. “No, I feel good about it. It’s exciting to me — music to my ears.”

Castro said there’s growing enthusiasm in San Antonio for mass transit and renewal of the city’s core.

But whether the public would have a chance to vote on funding a starter system is an open question.

“I think that’s unclear because the financing isn’t clear,” Castro said. “It is clear that there’s going to have to be a significant investment from the public to make this happen. One way or another, the public will have input when it comes to expanding mass transit.”

That rail has been successful in Portland isn’t to say the process was easy. Portland Streetcar Executive Director Rick Gustafson said some neighborhoods were slow to accept increased density, a key component of a successful transit system. He also said funding is an enduring issue. Still, he’s optimistic for the Alamo City.

“San Antonio appears to have lined up a pretty strong political commitment to do this,” he said.

Muñoz said he believes a shift in thinking is under way.

The Downtown Alliance, which represents center-city property owners, has supported the idea of a streetcar system, and Wolff and Castro are proponents of improving transit.

Muñoz also has an ally leading the city’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees how federal transportation dollars are spent in Bexar County. Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, a strong rail proponent, was elected chairman of the MPO board just a few days before the delegation visited Portland.

The political will to build a streetcar line would be crucial in San Antonio, where “density” often is said pejoratively. Castro, who sees density as a positive rather than a negative, said he’s confident the council would support changing zoning laws to encourage transit-oriented development.

“San Antonio needs to embrace denser development to avoid continuous urban sprawl, to strengthen the urban core of the city,” he said.

Bankrolling streetcars

Financing is another key question, and one that lacks answers.

Muñoz, who spent a day before the Portland trip with congressmen in Washington, D.C., said he doesn’t expect there to be much federal funding for a starter streetcar line. However, some federal grant programs could help. There’s also the potential for VIA to take on debt for the first time in its history.

For Portland Streetcar, the roughly $103.2 million it took to build the track came from multiple sources.

The largest pots of money came from bonds backed by revenue generated from a small increase in rates at city parking garages and from tax increment financing. The third largest portion of funding — $19.4 million — came from the private sector through the use of a “local improvement district.”

Property owners in a district that enveloped the line voted to pay an additional one-time assessment on their property beyond their normal ad valorem taxes, though the amount wasn’t due all at once. Owner-occupied residences were exempt.

Wolff said he thinks a key to making the dollars work would be assigning the city’s last 1/8-cent sales tax to VIA. That equates to roughly $25 million annually, he said. Without it, the “funding is squishy,” he said.

“If we’re serious about addressing mass transit, that’s got to be a key revenue source,” Wolff said to Muñoz. “Y’all need to be thinking about that. Of course, you need the mayor’s support and my support.”

But landing that sales tax wouldn’t be easy because of competing interests, including advocates for tapping the revenue to bolster the city’s library system.

For Castro, who’s focused primarily on budget and energy discussions right now, the sales tax “is certainly a consideration.”

“There’s a general determination to look at different funding options,” he said.

New outlook

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.

In Portland — where people leave their cars parked and commute by bicycle, streetcar, light rail and commuter train — the streetcar line has been a strong tool for revitalizing the city’s core.

Homer Williams, a key developer in Portland’s hot inner-city neighborhoods, plainly told San Antonio leaders to “look at the streetcar like an economic engine.” High-density developments — major property-tax revenue producers — would pop up along the line and generate more money for taxing jurisdictions, he predicted. (A spike like that, Castro said Friday, could help revitalize the San Antonio Independent School District.)

“Over the next 20 years, cities that embrace this will flourish,” he said.

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.”


2,889 Posts
It is very good news, but, it's not as big of a deal as you think once you see them. We've had them continuously in New Orleans since 1835. It's really just another way to get around. I've probably taken over 2,000 trips on streetcars in this city and half the time I'm more annoyed than anything else when I'm trying to cross the street (when I'm in the car). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the convenience of the lines, but, people make a bigger deal out of streetcars than they should, IMO.

2,398 Posts
I've probably taken over 2,000 trips on streetcars in this city
2,000 trips where you did not have to hassle with your car, find parking, and drive in traffic. Having transit often makes people apathetic to its advantages. I am not saying you are necessarily apathetic, but transit has some major advantages that having a car just does not give you. Cars are nice for the freedom of schedule, but outside of that they can be trouble in the city core.


333 Posts
We're going for the grand slam when it comes to Mass transit.

River Taxi's, Buses, Bus Rapid, Street car and light rail.

VIA brought in Charlotte's CATS CEO (Keith Parker) because VIA is very serious about street car and light rail.

VIA is already building the BRT line. Next up is Street Cars then light rail.

483 Posts
It is very good news, but, it's not as big of a deal as you think once you see them. We've had them continuously in New Orleans since 1835. It's really just another way to get around. I've probably taken over 2,000 trips on streetcars in this city and half the time I'm more annoyed than anything else when I'm trying to cross the street (when I'm in the car). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the convenience of the lines, but, people make a bigger deal out of streetcars than they should, IMO.
I love our streetcars, and I wish we had more... much more. There was a time when we had them on virtually every street in the city. I wish we still did, and I don't see them as a nuisance at all.

One thing that would be good is if San Antonio were to contact New Orleans' RTA and buy their streetcars from us. We build our own here, and they are without a doubt the best streetcars I've seen anywhere. The new ones are air conditioned with all the modern comforts and conveniences, but still have the same traditional look that they've had forever. The RTA has built and sold new cars to other municipalities before.
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