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San Antonio — Southwestern City's Streetcar Desire Gets Stronger

Updated on January 12, 2012
San Antonio streetcar simulation
San Antonio streetcar simulation | Source

What? A streetcar in the Alamo City?

Lots of American cities have dreams of light rail – but in San Antonio, those dreams are becoming more intense, focusing on modern electric streetcar technology ... and they may be getting closer to reality.

Mind you, it's not a mode of public transit that is totally alien to San Antonio — on the contrary, back in the 1920s the city boasted about 130 miles of a fuel-efficient, cost-effective, and user-friendly electric streetcar network. All that disappeared in 1933 when San Antonio decided to jump on the Motor Age bandwagon, becoming one of the first American cities to dismantle its urban rail system.

In recent years, however, the crush of private motor vehicles spewing gasoline fumes and hogging valuable inner-city space for parking has made civic leaders long for a return to a more efficient public transport system that could move people at lower cost per passenger-mile while luring riders out of their cars. Even though a light rail ballot measure was rejected by voters in 2000, momentum has been rebuilding for investment in some form of urban rail for the city — and streetcar is the name of the current desire.

Until early November 2011, the favored plan was an L-shaped route serving the city's central business district (CBD). But suddenly the local transit agency (VIA), city, and county came up with funds sufficient to cover both a north-south line and an east-west line — and without federal assistance (which can create project development delays and significantly add to total cost).

Exact routes and their lengths haven't been nailed down, but, from earlier planning, it can be assumed that each route would initially run 2-3 miles. According to a 2010 report, a full streetcar system could involve an east-west line stretching about 8 miles (about 13 km) and a north-south line of about 10 miles (about 16 km).

With a cost of roughly $190 million, the initial streetcar system could serve as a less expensive "precursor" to an eventually more full-blown, high-performance light rail transit (LRT) system using larger, faster cars running on reserved tracks as well as city streets.

The proposed lines would connect a number of important travel corridors and destinations, including:

Broadway corridor — This is a wide, heavily traveled thoroughfare running through one of the inner city's oldest districts, with well-established adjacent commercial development (such as restaurants and retail shops), major museums, a university, and residential neighborhoods.

The Pearl — Inner-city mall, retail, restaurant, and condo area redeveloped on the site of the old Pearl beer brewery.

Downtown — This is where the city's most famous tourist-beckoning crown jewels are located: the Alamo and the River Walk.

HemisFair Park — Redevelopment area renovating the HemisFair exposition site of the 1960s.

Robert Thompson Transit Center — Both an important multi-route transit hub and major destination serving the Alamodome.

West Side Multimodal Center — New multi-modal public transport hub, in the city's former train depot on Medina Street, slated to serve major bus routes, Greyhound, Amtrak, and a planned Lone Star Rail line connecting San Antonio with Austin and a variety of smaller communities in Central Texas.

Planners are projecting 2016 as a target date for when you'll start hearing the "clang, clang, clang" of the trolley from the Alamo and your table along the River Walk.



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