It's gotten gusty these days at VIA Metropolitan Transit.
Where it concerns routes for streetcars, particularly one that would connect eastern and western sections of downtown, the prevailing winds have shifted sharply in two months.
As recently as early July, the route that had emerged with the most political momentum was a narrow one that would traverse Market and Commerce streets. Good for tourists and entrenched interests, it gained propulsion with a puff from Pat DiGiovanni, CEO of Centro Partnership, who wrote a letter to VIA urging it give "serious consideration" to the route.
Weeks later, VIA unveiled the route at a public meeting. At the time, VIA board Chairman Henry Munoz III seemed to favor it, as did streetcar stalwart Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
Flash forward to this week: VIA planners recommended that the agency reject the Commerce-Market couplet and instead build a more expansive -- and expensive -- system that would reach virtually every corner of downtown.
In a word, politics. In this case, the opposing forces took form in two influential figures: Andres Andujar, CEO of the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, and Mayor Julian Castro.
By July, Andujar had started circulating a memo arguing for a more expansive alignment along Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, another option on the table. He noted that between St. Mary's Street and U.S. 281, the densely packed Commerce and Market streets pass just three acres of developable land, while the Chavez alignment would carry passengers along 29 acres of open parcels.
"Chavez has nine times more developable land than does Commerce/Market," Andujar wrote.
Some of that developable land, of course, is HemisFair Park. And both Andujar and Castro are personally invested in making the park a world-class destination for residents, who would enjoy more access to streetcars along the Chavez alignment.
In mid-July, Castro made his first public statement regarding his preference. The mayor, however, didn't mention any lofty visions of HemisFair or a Decade of Downtown; instead, he dwelled underground, in utilities.
"It's my understanding that the (realignment) work the city is doing on Market is not compatible with the streetcar," Castro told me. "It's more prudent to choose another route."
In typical fashion, Castro had cast a political position in practicalities. City staff offered an assist: Mike Frisbie, director of the city's Capital Improvements Management Services department, concurred with Castro's assessment.
Behind the scenes, the mayor was exerting quiet pressure. When I asked someone close to VIA how much weight his opinion carried, the source said, "$32 million of weight."
(That's how much the city is pitching in for the streetcar system. The number nearly triples for the county, which is paying $92 million.)
Meanwhile, Andujar's memo found its way into the hands of Wolff.
The county judge asked for a meeting in August with Andujar at the CEO's office, where Andujar noted Wolff's stance had changed.
"He had a copy of my white paper," Andujar said.
Winning over Wolff to the Chavez alignment was critical for its supporters. Beyond the $92 million, Wolff's power also is concentrated in Munoz, for whom he helped secure the chairmanship at VIA.
Also in play was Munoz's purchase in February 2012 of property at the eastern end of the proposed Commerce-Market route. When that fact mushroomed last month into controversy reeking of a conflict of interest, Wolff was frustrated.
"This caught us by surprise, and it's just one more element of controversy that we don't need," Wolff said.
Along with pressure by Castro and Andujar, the controversy helped shift the political winds. On Wednesday, Wolff was standing in front.
"What they came up with was a pretty good compromise," he said.
Copyright 2013 - San Antonio Express-News