SAN ANTONIO - A few years from now streetcars may join the Alamo and the Riverwalk as fixtures of Downtown San Antonio. But is the $190 million streetcar project a wise investment in the future? Or is it being railroaded through over the objection of voters?
News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila takes a look at how the streetcar got to be on the fast-track.
The streetcar project is being modeled after one in Portland, Oregon, which has been popular with tourists and locals. It’s also been credited with revitalizing that city's downtown.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was one of the local leaders who went to look at the Portland streetcar, and is one of its most enthusiastic supporters.
“First of all, it rides on the side of the road. Cars can ride on (the tracks) also. It takes forty percent of the buses off the downtown area streets. It reduces traffic congestion, once you get the system up and running it's cheaper to run than to buy buses,” Wolff claims.
Wolff says the greatest benefit is that streetcars encourage people and businesses to move downtown. He points to new apartment buildings along Broadway north of Downtown, and claims developers are building them partly in anticipation of the streetcar line.
“It doesn't cost us a lot to do development down here, in terms of having to add more police or fire, it's all here already. It's expensive to build way out in the county, build new highways, new roads, more congestion,” Wolff told News 4 WOAI.
The proposed streetcar route would run from the Pearl Brewery, down Broadway into Downtown, cutting east through HemisFair Park to the Alamodome.
Not everyone's on board with the streetcar. Some feel improvements to our overloaded roadways should come first. Then there's the heated dispute over how the streetcar is being paid for.
VIA, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County have all agreed to pitch in for the project. But for its part, Bexar County wants to use $92 million of Advanced Transportation District funds. That's money raised by a quarter-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2004.
At the time though, VIA’s literature urging voters to pass the new tax promised the money would be used to improve bus service, as well as roads and highways. Voters were told the money would NOT be used for toll roads or a light-rail project.
Opponents like State Senator Jeff Wentworth say VIA and Bexar County have pulled a bait-and-switch on those voters.
“Most voters thought that the increased tax revenue was going to be to help improve public roads, not to build some light-rail, streetcar project Downtown. Now the argument's been made that streetcars really aren't light-rail. Well, we're not going to quibble about that. Voters consider streetcars light-rail," explained Wentworth.
Wentworth has asked the State Attorney General's office for an opinion on whether the county and VIA are breaking what amounts to a contract with voters.
However, Nelson Wolff is adamant that streetcars and light-rail are not the same thing.
News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila asked Wolff, “Is that semantics to say it's not light-rail, when it is a kind of rail?”
Wolff responded, “No, no. It is rail. Let's put it that way. But the streetcar systems are more of a Downtown, inner-city, smaller system -- totally different than a light-rail system.”
Wolff and other streetcar supporters claim San Antonio is the only major U.S. city that hasn't started on a transportation system that includes rail. They say the streetcar will help qualify San Antonio for federal money to expand the rail system to other parts of the city in coming years.
It could all be derailed, however, by a lawsuit over the funding issue, or the Attorney General's ruling, which is expected by early fall.