Call it the “Streetcar No One Desired.” A San Antonio transit project being forced onto an unwilling public by political elites has been halted by residents, who launched a petition drive to force a vote on the matter.
The lesson here is that public servants must always remember who it is they’re serving. If they forget, people start dusting off their pitchforks and torches.
At issue is an expensive streetcar plan that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to the city and to Bexar County.
The streetcar plan is a classic example of a development project cooked up by “urban planners” who didn’t take the time to consult with urban residents (or taxpayers) as to whether they actually wanted the project.
San Antonio Express-News columnist Bennie Wilson explained recently that officials had unclear and unfocused reasons for wanting the project.
“Alex Briseño, former San Antonio city manager and current chairman of VIA (metro transit authority), pushed streetcars as part of a wider, ‘multimodal’ system that one day would be vastly expanded, even toward what he lamented were the ‘sprawling’ suburbs — sort of a downtown vs. sprawl emphasis,” Wilson wrote. “In a particularly weak but inventive justification for spending millions on streetcars, Briseño responded to streetcar antagonists’ assertion that streetcars — prisoners of permanent and expensive tracks — are inflexible in changing transportation routes in response to community growth. He opined that the inflexibility of streetcars would stimulate economic growth along streetcar routes because business owners and homebuyers would be assured of their permanence.”
Other supporters point out that Seattle and Portland have streetcars; Wilson responds that those aren’t good arguments.
“In our quest to become a ‘world-class’ city, we keep making meaningless comparisons to other cities,” he writes. “A ‘me too’ mentality does not make a world-class city.”
Wilson zeroes in on the disconnect between public officials and the public they serve.
“The most disappointing aspect of the streetcar issue is the intransigence and apparent lack of confidence of city and county leaders in the ‘will of the people,’ no matter if that will is in favor of or against a streetcar system,” he writes. “Apparently, not only is a public vote of the people of Bexar County and San Antonio, including millennials, not allowable, our leaders are not disposed to lobby Texas lawmakers to permit this most valued of rights in a democracy.”
James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation commended San Antonio leaders for — finally — withdrawing their support for the project, if only after a citizen-led petition drive demanded they do so.
“It is encouraging to see that the public is letting their voice be heard by way of the charter amendment process,” Quintero said.
Real democracy is a cumbersome beast — it’s simply not possible for every issue to be decided by everyone, via a public referendum. That’s why we’ve got a representative democracy.
But that form only works when elected officials are truly representing their constituents. When they lose sight of that, as they did in San Antonio, expect trouble.