After almost a year of debate and study, VIA Metropolitan Transit planners recommended Tuesday that the agency build a streetcar system nearly 6 miles long that reaches virtually every corner of downtown.
Now they just have to find the money to do it.
VIA is short at least $70 million to build the entire system at once. Instead, VIA likely will have to do it in phases and go to the federal government for additional funding, ideally a 50 percent match, project consultant Kyle Keahey said.
"This is going to be a stretch for us to achieve," Keahey said, addressing VIA's Planning and Project Development Committee on Tuesday.
Trustees Richard Gambitta, Steve Allison, Mary Briseno, Gerald Lee and Lou Miller were present.
But Keahey said the streetcar project is a strong contender for a Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant, which can be up to $75 million for a single project. That VIA already has more than $200 million on hand improves its chances for a federal match, Keahey said.
Known as Alternative 6, the streetcar route would be 5.9 miles long, cost an estimated $280 million to build and require $8.5 million annually to operate and maintain. But VIA planners hope it would result in high ridership -- about 1.4 million passengers a year.
VIA has $210 million -- state and city funds plus its share of sales tax revenue -- to build the system. The agency would have to pursue more state and federal dollars to make up the shortfall, which could be $70 million at a minimum, but the total funding needed will likely be more.
The construction estimate does not include contingency costs -- unexpected expenses that Keahey said as the rule of thumb can amount to 20 percent to 35 percent of the total budget. That would mean VIA needs an additional $56 million to $98 million on top of the $70 million.
The electric-powered streetcar would travel on rails embedded in the streets, share the roadway with regular traffic and have a service frequency of 10-12 minutes.
The route would travel north-south using Broadway and St. Mary's and Navarro streets. Planners have also recommended extending the line farther south on St. Mary's into Southtown, all the way to Alamo Street. The original plan had the route stopping at Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard.
The streetcar would use Cesar Chavez and Martin and Pecan streets to travel east and west across downtown. It would briefly travel on Commerce and Buena Vista/Market streets between Frio and Santa Rosa Streets.
Earlier this summer, there had been a push among some downtown stakeholders to run the streetcar on Commerce and Market all the way through downtown, with the idea it would better connect to the Convention Center, undergoing a $325 million expansion.
"We believe the recommendation is a balance of what is the San Antonio of today with the development that's currently occurring along Broadway and some of the development you currently see going on in the downtown area, but also a balance with the San Antonio of the future," VIA's Chief Development Officer Brian Buchanan said.
He was referencing the possibility of a University of the Incarnate Word medical school downtown, revitalization of San Pedro Creek and an H-E-B grocery store at Cesar Chavez and Flores Street.
The route will allow the best interaction between streetcar and bus service, Keahey said, and may help VIA achieve its goal of removing downtown bus traffic. There are also fewer environmental risks with the preferred route, and the design could accommodate future extensions of the system.
But it's more expensive because of its length, which means more track and more streetcar vehicles, which VIA will need to ensure frequent service.
The capital costs includes the price of building a streetcar maintenance facility. VIA is looking at sites either near Broadway or on the West Side, Keahey said.
Tuesday's recommendation does not mean this route, as is, will get built -- the board could push for a different or modified one at its next regular meeting Sept. 24.