Another Reason Texans Don’t Vote for Rail

Anyone who has been following the news regarding rail transit planning in Texas probably knows that Austin and San Antonio are each inching toward the most hotly debated systems in the country.  A quick look through the commentaries on either Austin’s comprehensive transportation planning process—known as Project Connect—or the Alamo city’s VIA Streetcar system is enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure.  Having grown up in a mature transit city, I often scratch my head at why many Texans are so opposed to investing in rail transit.  As an outsider to the bitter fight, though, I began to realize something about Texas cities that makes growing rail systems here a problem: they’re huge.

San Antonio’s land area is a broad 461 square miles.  To put that in perspective, Washington, DC’s land area is just over 61 square miles—more than 7 times smaller.  Boston is even smaller, at 48 square miles.  And Miami would fit inside San Antonio nearly 13 times!

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So what?  We all know that everything’s bigger in Texas, but what does that have to do with transit?

In a word: voting.

San Antonio residents voted down a sales tax increase in 2000, which would have helped create a light rail line.  But now, the city’s transit authority is pursuing a streetcar spanning 5.9 miles of its downtown and Lower Broadway neighborhoods.  So why is VIA pushing forward with the streetcar after its citizens said nay to a similar proposal a decade ago?  The short answer is that the majority of voters are too far away to feel invested in a project many feel they’ll never use. 

With the exception of the portion that crosses I-35 to reach the Westside Multimodal Center, the entire streetcar project falls within City Council District 1, an area that houses just 8 percent of the city’s residents (and had fewer residents in 2010 than in 2000).  It should be no surprise to anyone who knows San Antonio that the city’s fastest growing voter districts (6, 8 and 9) are north and west of the core.  More than a third of the city—including the city’s wealthiest residents—lives in these three districts.  Making matters worse, the city’s largest employer (USAA) is an 11-mile drive from the closest proposed streetcar stop.  The Toyota manufacturing plant is 12 miles away.

In contrast, roughly 57 percent of Washington, DC’s land area is located within a half mile of a MetroRail station.  I would presume an even greater share of the population can walk to a Metro station.  This doesn’t even account for the increased access residents will have to the 37-mile streetcar system being constructed there right now.   Add in Capital Bikeshare and almost no resident is out of reach to rail. 

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(the image above shows areas in Washington, DC within a half-mile radius of existing Metrorail stations)

I realize that people’s opposition to rail is more complex than simply their proximity (or lack thereof) to the system.  But at least by understanding the geography of the voting problem Texas cities face in implementing rail transit investments, it provides a greater opportunity to educate the public on how transit can be a win-win, even if they never see a farebox.  With a telescope.

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3 responses to “Another Reason Texans Don’t Vote for Rail”

  1. Steven Yarak (@slyarak) says :

    While the urban boundaries are interesting, using them as a basis for transit access is unsound. To take your Washington Metro example, consider (1) there isn’t any single voting district for WMATA (they don’t even have dedicated funding!) and (2) the Washington Metro serves areas far beyond the district itself. While I don’t have the numbers at hand, I’d bet the majority of the Silver Line is in Virginia.

    So far as I know, the same is true of just about every other system – BART, MBTA, MTA, even CTA (and municipal Chicago is HUGE!). I think the more interesting question is why those systems can function with transit districts that cover such a large areas with multiple municipalities, while here it was the suburban voters in the CMTA service area that killed the 2000 plan.

    • greengenuity says :

      Granted, DC’s Metro system is a bit of an anomaly. The original planned system was funded almost entirely with federal funds, so that removed the need for the public to buy into it and for the localities to front a ton of cash they didn’t have. Being that many federal workers are officed downtown, it makes total sense. Future projects, including the Silver Line you mention, haven’t been as blessed by Uncle Sam (and yes, it is primarily in Northern VA).

      One of the things I wonder, though, (and why I eventually decided to write this post) is whether San Antonio’s fate would have been different in 2000 if the city were geographically smaller and those growing council districts I mentioned were actually neighboring suburban cities–just like other transit-rich US cities (DC, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and even Dallas).

      Again, I want to be clear that I’m not saying geography is the only, or even the primary, reason that rail has been voted down several times in Texas cities. I just wanted to bring up a factor that maybe some hadn’t considered before.

  2. Will McLeod says :

    Because when trains get put in, BUS service suffers. Houston used to have a 24 hour bus route (I still have the schedule to prove it, wanna copy?) when rail came in they eliminated the route, and several others.

    RAIL HURTS!!!!

    Do you know the number of accidents Houston’s trolley folly caused since it’s inception?

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