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!
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.
(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.