Downtown Streetcars keeping UTSA on track for growth

While the neighborhoods surrounding UTSA’s Main Campus have begun evolving into a community built on college culture and student life, its downtown campus is much more intertwined with the economic fabric of San Antonio and presents the most efficient way for UTSA to become a part of that culture itself. Strengthening the bonds between UTSA’s downtown campus and downtown San Antonio through VIA’s streetcar system will boost UTSA’s standing in the community and open up doors to more partnerships with San Antonio businesses.

Not unlike UTSA, the city of San Antonio has been on a rapid upward trajectory in recent years. While other Texas cities like Austin and Houston developed into economic powers from their success in the technology and energy sectors years ago, San Antonio has only recently begun to shift from an economy dominated by military jobs and tourism to one that is diverse and modern. As the city’s job market has become more diverse and its population more educated, San Antonio’s downtown business sector has undergone a renaissance in the past twenty years — which includes the completion of UTSA’s downtown campus in 1997.

San Antonio is currently in the final stages of planning for a downtown streetcar system that will connect UTSA’s downtown campus with the Riverwalk, the Institute of Texan Cultures, the Pearl Brewery, the Alamodome and — perhaps most importantly — San Antonio’s core business district. Critics of the plan have said it is a waste of taxpayer money and that it ignores other solutions to downtown’s traffic problems, such as buses.

However, not only would the streetcar system benefit San Antonio’s taxpayers by creating a more efficient downtown transit system to complement the buses and pedestrian-friendly cityscapes, it would also transform the downtown climate to one that embraces students and researchers alongside tourists and business leaders. UTSA students, along with students at the University of the Incarnate Word’s planned downtown medical school, would create a more diverse and appealing culture to companies looking toward downtown San Antonio.

Currently, the most public and significant obstacles facing the streetcar plan are technicalities regarding two transit centers that would serve the streetcar system; one would be on the east side of downtown near the Alamodome, while the other would be a short walk from UTSA’s downtown campus. The construction of these transit centers is being debated between VIA (who is responsible for the streetcar system) and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who says that VIA has broken a contract made with voters. VIA is paying for the transit center in part using bonds that it promised would not be used for light rail projects, and the Attorney General is arguing that streetcars and light rail are ubiquitous.

Many transit and legal experts have found Abbott’s claim groundless — citing functional and technical differences between streetcar and light rail, to say nothing of the buses that would also be served by the transit centers — but regardless of the Attorney General’s noble attempt at defending the letter of the law the transit centers benefits far outweigh the legal (and political) arguments. The transit centers would benefit passengers of both streetcars and buses and help revitalize the downtown neighborhood around UTSA. More importantly for UTSA students, the transit center would link the downtown campus with both the main campus through VIA’s Primo buses and the rest of downtown through the streetcar system.

UTSA’s downtown campus has been expanding since the late 90s, not unlike the city center it calls home. The campus serves over 6,000 students per semester, and according to UTSA’s Master Plan, both its downtown footprint and role within the university are expected to increase in the future. Integrating the downtown campus into downtown San Antonio’s economic culture would benefit the growth of both the university and the city.

San Antonio’s streetcar plan is a huge step forward for the many elements that make downtown unique. The streetcars — and the westside transit center that should accompany