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Economic study paints positive outlook for streetcar project

Opponents call study a distraction, still pushing for vote

SAN ANTONIO – VIA Metropolitan Transit on Monday released the results of an economic impact study conducted on its streetcar project.

The study examined the fiscal impact on the project for 25 years.

"The impacts derived from streetcar are expected to be quite substantial, even conservatively estimated," said Steve Nivin, director and chief economist at the SABÉR Institute. "The introduction of streetcar presents substantial opportunity to leverage new development that would otherwise not occur."

The study estimates a $1.3 billion economic impact in San Antonio. The construction of the system would support almost 14,000 jobs, with workers taking home more than $700 million in wages and benefits. New commercial and residential development surrounding the project would generate nearly $265 million in property taxes, $53 million in sales taxes, and approximately $4 million in construction sales tax. The project would also stimulate 7 million square feet of new development.

"That would leverage $700 million in taxable value," said VIA Board Chair Alex Bresino.

VIA spokesman Charles Gonzalez said the results address concerns from some critics that the project will only benefit residents downtown.

"Citizens asking, ‘If its downtown what's in it for me?' We can assure you it has an economic impact it has a consequence to each and every family in this city and it's something that we need to maintain and continue to build," he said.

The study used data from Portland, Seattle, and Tampa -- three cities that have a streetcar system.

Researchers spoke to only a half-dozen downtown stake-holders for the study, narrowing the broader conversation that has taken place over the last few years.

"Look at what happened in those three cities and it's not a pretty picture," said Jeff Judson, of the Heartland Institute. "It's proven in other cities that have built streetcars that streetcars alone do not attract economic development. What attracts economic development is when you subsidize  developers. I don't think that's a very good policy, but that's the policy we have in place and its achieving its intended result"

With the city's population expected to grow by approximately 1 million people by 2040, VIA officials said the project will free up space on roadways.

"We're talking about the needs of people in the future. We're looking at the potential of having an additional million residents in Bexar County in the next 25 years and another 500,000 vehicles they're going to bring with them," Bresino said.

Judson said a better use of the $32 million the city has pledged to the project would be to pay for road improvements and other transportation projects.

Opponents of the project called the report a distraction and said the report simply presents a "what-if" scenario.

A petition circulated by the Streetcar Vote Coalition calling for an amendment to the city charter to allow for a vote is expected to be presented to city officials later next week.

"Unless VIA can produce data or other things that substantiate the report it's just a report," said George Alejos, who lost a lawsuit to VIA over the project earlier this year. "The fact that somebody comes out with some numbers and a polished report doesn't mean that it's going to materialize into that. "Our position on the issue is whether or not we should vote on this matter."