Analysis San Antonio Bioregion

A People’s Movement to Make Rail Transit Central in San Antonio

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Can a people’s movement lay new tracks in San Antonio? Image: Modified via Wikimedia Commons

‘San Antonians for Rail Transit’ seeks to rescue rail as a local, regional, and national transit (and climate) solution after years of official neglect

Jesse Harasta

San Antonio is the largest city in America without any urban rail transit. Looking across the country, we can see many smaller cities, like Portland, Oregon, or New Orleans,  with strong, functional systems. What’s more, attempts to build light rail, Lone Star rail to Austin, for example, or streetcar systems have failed over and over again. After these failures, Ron Nirenberg and our city leaders retreated from even token attempts at rail transit, instead promoting a multi-modal bus-based system. 

Our city leaders seem to think that the question of transit is “how do we move more cars at greater speed through our city?” Yet, the endless lane additions, flyovers, and freeways have only become harder and slower to navigate. We instead need to ask, “How can we have fewer cars?” There is only one answer: mass transit—specifically a multimodal plan including the full range of rail technologies. 

This is a daunting landscape, one might even say a Ford F-650-sized challenge. While it is easy to become discouraged, we have a moral responsibility to address climate change, economic marginalization, and the threat to life that is now inherent in just crossing the street.

What we need for a transit revolution in San Antonio is a conscious construction of movement power able to counter the institutional power of the automobile/fossil fuel interests. We must create a profound shift in public awareness leading to a culture of rail. We need to demonstrate to San Antonians the benefits of rail and a true multimodal system and, through them, demonstrate to elected officials that support exists for rail in our city. This is the time to do this work. The infrastructure bill passed last year in Congress provides billions for rail, and the Inflation Reduction Act has funds to reduce the negative impacts of highways and at-grade rail crossings on communities.

In the past few months, a group of devoted activists has begun this work. We call ourselves SART—San Antonians for Rail Transit—and we aim to be an umbrella bringing together “railfans,” transit activists, environmentalists, disability organizers, cyclists/outdoor enthusiasts, and leftists for the shared goal of mass rail transit.

SART is sometimes asked “why rail?” After all, hasn’t the electorate shown repeated resistance? Why not push for a better VIA bus system? 

Ultimately, we believe that San Antonio deserves more than half measures, transit as a leftover for the city’s most vulnerable. A city of our size needs a multimodal system (including better buses!) able to address the present and future needs of our people. 

We acknowledge that a region with millions of residents needs an appropriately scaled system of transit. Moreover, we believe this is a necessity for the city to meet its climate goals under the 2019 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

Coming from various other movements, we understood that this transformation needs a conscious, careful planning of how to build power.

We envision three stages to this work—though we’re well aware that there will be others as of yet beyond the horizon.

The Nascent Stage began with the creation of a Facebook group (find us at “SART – San Antonians for Rail Transit“) which we advertised widely on many different Facebook groups. On this page, we began a steady release of articles, photos and especially memes. Emerging social research has shown that memes can be a powerful tool in fractured social landscapes. This page set a tone for discussion, introduced us to one another, and helped us engage in mutual self education. 

We soon began to move beyond Facebook, though we understand that the group should remain a space of recruitment and discussion. We had a virtual meeting to set values and goals and then an in-person social meet up.  At this event, we debuted our website—railforsanantonio.com—and our first campaign 

Now solidly “IRL,” we moved into the Starting Stage. This is where we are now and our goals are to build power through recruitment and publicity. 

While our long term goals are focused primarily on transit within Greater San Antonio, our first campaign is a petition calling on local elected officials to support improving Amtrak service to our city. We began here because it is the rail that our city already has but it is woefully under performing. For example, Amtrak has cut dining cars from three out of four trains serving the city.

By joining into a wider campaign to improve service nationally, we can achieve short term goals and train a new cadre of activists. Our hope is to take this petition to the city and county levels and pass local resolutions, then bring them to our federal representatives.  

Simultaneously, we have another plan in mind to begin building public awareness of rail: school pen pals. We hope to link elementary schools in San Antonio to their peers in Chicago—the other end of the Texas Eagle Amtrak line—in a pen pal program. We want to tap into nostalgia by handing an old-fashioned mail sack to the conductor here and have the train bring the mail north.

Finally, some of the most important work in this stage is the crucial work of planning. We want to propose a bold new system for San Antonio, but we want a system that is achievable and truly serves the city’s needs.

The completion of this research will inaugurate the third stage of our work.  This stage will be a massive campaign to transform the city with light rail including a restoration of public service to our city’s two beautiful historic stations: Sunset and MOPAC. We have no illusions about how difficult this may be and as we move closer, we’ll break it down into manageable steps, but that work waits on our visioning work.

Beyond this, we remain open to the bright future of rail in this city including inter-city connections to Austin and the suburbs, excursion rail to regional destinations, improvements to Amtrak service and the continued building of the culture of rail.  

We are excited about our work and the energy that comes from organizing for something you have long desired but never felt possible. We truly hope to join with allies and friends across the city and for you to join us.

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Jesse Harasta is the founder and lead organizer for San Antonians for Rail Transit. He is an associate professor of instruction at UTSA, working with incoming students, and is a long-time advocate for environmental and climate justice—and a just transition. He is an active member of the San Antonio DSA chapter.


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