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Transportation town hall about more than just toll roads

Tonight Texas Public Radio hosted a town hall focused on transportation issues at the UTSA Downtown campus. Terry Gildea, TPR reporter, served as moderator of a panel consisting of Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, Keith Parker, President & CEO, VIA Metropolitan Transit, Julia Diana, Office of Environmental Policy, City of San Antonio, Michael Miles, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), and Dr. Heywood “Woody” Sanders, UTSA, Urban Studies Department. About 50 people attended the town hall and provided the majority of questions for the panelists. With so much focus on toll roads these days I was afraid the discussion would be primarily about toll roads. However, the questions and discussion focused on a variety of topics and provided some insight in opportunities.

In the opening statements Dr. Sanders provided some very interesting statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau related to how San Antonio residents commute to work. Not surprisingly 90% commute by car to work with only 12% using car pools, 3.2% use public transportation, and 1.9% walk to work. When looking at the employment centers around San Antonio the downtown area only has 25,000 private workers compared with the Medical Center area at 50,000 workers and the Airport area at 51,000 workers. His point was that with the dispersed work centers in San Antonio public transportation does not work in providing commuting options for San Antonio.

Looking at the DART rail system Michael Miles pointed to a system that developed over time with good long range planning. Starting in the mid 80s DART began acquiring rights of way for the eventual development of one of the best rail systems in Texas. On an average day DART will move 70,000 residents by rail and 150,000 by bus, clearly showing that Dallas residents are giving up the car for transit. Granted the system was strained during the recent Texas-OU weekend and Miles admitted to the failures but after moving 90,000 people in 3 hours DART knows what to expect in the future.

Keith Parker talked about some opportunities VIA has in helping make the transit system more viable and usable in the future. Coming from experience in managing Charlotte’s public transit system, Parker discussed efforts in Charlotte to make the bus and light rail system more usable by commuters. In some cases that meant putting racks on buses where riders could store briefcases and laptops, creating more comfortable seats for long commutes, and building bus stops with shelters for inclement weather. When asked about the issue of locating light rail on right of way corridor with little concentration, Parker said the public would need to be engaged in the conversation.

Both Parker and Miles pointed out that planning along with zoning changes could help foster better development along light rail corridors. In the case of Dallas, having mixed use development zoning has helped developers create new urban and vertical communities around transit stations, increasing ridership for the light rail. Dallas has also experienced a generational change where younger residents are opting for living in the downtown area and considering cars as secondary transit means instead of primary. This could be an option that could develop in San Antonio as the city looks at development of both River North and the Broadway corridor. By leveraging form-based codes instead of single-use codes mixed used development could foster similar communities.

Rep. McClendon and Dr. Sanders talked about the challenge of planning in San Antonio with so many agencies and organizations having “fiefdoms” (my word) in terms of developing transportation plans. Until San Antonio establishes a more cohesive and coordinated approach to transit planning the city will continue to experience sporadic and disjointed funding and development of transit options. I have blogged about this issue before but it appears San Antonio is not anywhere close to resolving the problem. This will continue to be a challenge as we struggle to put forward any type of plan for funding by TxDOT or the federal government.

On the note of federal funding Parker did make note of the recent funding for three all-electric buses which will make San Antonio one of the first in the nation to leverage buses powered not by carbon fuel, but by electricity generated from renewable resources such as wind. Hopefully this will help set the city on more of a course for improving its green viewpoints and help drive more innovation in transit development.

You can listen to the town hall this Friday at 7 p.m. or on the TPR website in the future.

  1. October 28th, 2009 at 13:25 | #1

    I think a great point that Mike Miles brought up at the meeting was that a successful transit system that includes light rail & commuter rail, as well as buses, is one that requires open communication with the public as well as achievable long-term goals. It has taken DART a long time to become recognized as a successful system – and they had to weather a great deal of criticism to get where they are today. If we want viable transportation choice in San Antonio we truly need to think long-term. I believe the spirit of the citizens is there, but can they be convinced that it is something worth waiting for? I truly hope so.

  2. Robert Davidson
    October 30th, 2009 at 15:11 | #2

    Fiefdom example: The MPO workshop hosted recently at the John Igo library served an MPO planning function. It doesn\’t meet TxDoT criteria for a plan. The CoSA will also perform a planning function in the area next year. I don\’t know how it fits into the AACoG Regional Transit planning. At a minimum the four organizations need to coordinate their planning protocols so that information developed by one organization can be used by the other organizations too.

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