Editor’s Note: The following remarks were given at the recent West Chamber of Commerce breakfast by Councilwoman Shirley Gonzlaes (D5), during which Gonzales delivered her State of the District address.
I laid out my vision for District 5 in my 2015 State of the District. My vision for District 5 remains unchanged, for a community of neighborhoods that are safe, walkable, pleasant, equitable and prosperous. A community that takes advantage of its urban nature to create a place where residents want to stay, raise families and grow businesses…that is my vision. I am proud to report my staff and I, city staff, our District 5 community, and the businesses that contribute to our community in so many ways are marching toward that vision.
In my last State of the District, I presented initiatives that were either in progress or would be undertaken this term, and described how those initiatives contribute to my vision. Today, I will focus on that work and my 2017 bond initiatives.
This time last year I was just beginning to build community and council support on a bold, even audacious, initiative. Vision Zero is the elimination of fatalities and serious injuries from traffic crashes. Twelve months ago I stood here and stated that public safety was my first priority as an elected official, and that I would not accept traffic deaths and serious injuries as inevitable.
I am committed to taking action this term, to begin the long process of turning San Antonio streets from among the most dangerous in the nation to the safest. Last June, I initiated council action to draft a Vision Zero Action Plan.
I secured a commitment from my colleagues and partner agencies such as VIA and Alamo Area MPO, sought and received numerous endorsements from dozens of community groups, public and private organizations, and neighborhood associations. Individual citizens from all over the city have reached out to express their support and gratitude. While this initiative’s birthplace was in District 5, I have seen that it is truly a citywide initiative because the lives of all San Antonians are important and are my personal priority.
The momentum for Vision Zero is growing locally and nationally. Cities across the nation and the globe are proving we can save lives. During their first year after adopting Vision Zero policies, New York City reduced traffic deaths to the lowest since 1910, and in the second year they reduced traffic deaths another 10.5%. New York’s traffic fatality rate is down to 2.8 deaths per 100,000 population, compared to San Antonio’s death rate of over 10 per 100,000. New York is not an exception. Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco have similar records. London and Tokyo have death rates well below 2 per 100,000, and Stockholm has a death rate of just 0.7 per 100,000.
These numbers are more than just statistics. They are lives lost, people killed. They are our children, brothers, sisters, family, and friends, and it is clear to me that people are dying at higher rates in San Antonio, and in cities across Texas, not because it is unavoidable, but because of public policy. Because of decisions made by elected and appointed officials who are building streets that every bit of evidence we have clearly shows kill and maim people.
The fact is humans error. We error in San Antonio, they error in New York, and they error in Stockholm. The difference is that in San Antonio, we are four (4) times more likely to die for those errors than in New York, and 14 times more likely to die than in Stockholm.
There is no other way to put it than we are 14 times more likely to lose a loved one to traffic violence in San Antonio simply because our existing public policy prioritizes the rapid movement of cars over lives.
We can do better. Much, much better.
The safest cities in the world have reduced deaths and serious injuries by reducing travel speed. Olmos Park, Windcrest, Alamo Heights and other municipalities in the San Antonio area are reducing travel speed. U.S. military installations around the country achieved Vision Zero long ago by managing speed.
High speed roads in urban areas kill. Road designs that kill cannot be justified. Speeds that kill cannot be justified. Public policies that fund and design deadly roads cannot be justified. These are all things within our control, we can achieve Vision Zero. Public officials, elected and appointed, can no longer avoid responsibility, even ownership, for traffic deaths.
Last month, I reviewed the initial draft of the Vision Zero action plan. That plan had strengths, but it did not map a path to eliminating traffic deaths. It was a politically safe document, but it was not effective or comprehensive. I provided thorough feedback and returned it for extensive re-work.
To be clear, I will not accept the senseless loss of life to traffic crashes. I am fully committed to Vision Zero, and I hold the team developing the Action Plan to the same standard. We are going to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries in San Antonio. I need the commitment from the planning team, and I need your support.
Vision Zero is important by itself, but is also just one effort in a larger strategy to improve quality of life in District 5, and indeed throughout San Antonio. Community groups are demanding safe and walkable neighborhoods.
Not only are Vision Zero and walkability mutually supportive, but they are also good for business. I own a business, and especially in retail, I understand the long held belief that high traffic corridors are desirable business locations. While that belief has some merit, unfortunately, it is for the wrong reasons.
Cars are not our customers, people are our customers, and studies have shown the business benefits of high quality public spaces that are inviting to people walking and riding bikes. As Smart Growth America coins it, a walkability premium exists because demand continues to outpace supply for real estate in walkable urban areas. Today, developments in Southtown, the near Westside and Midtown are demonstrating the viability of walkable communities in San Antonio.
Last year, I began discussions on Infill Development Zoning. IDZ provides a zoning overlay that allows development which is much more sensitive to the needs of our oldest communities, and more supportive of walking. IDZ development supports walkability and urbanization by reducing parking requirements, setbacks, and development costs. IDZ is right for our community and your businesses, suburban development models are not.
I made the commitment to work with the business community to find a way to institutionalize infill development zoning in District 5. My explicit goal is to reduce the time, complexity and cost of securing infill zoning. Today marks the beginning of that work. I am asking the West Chamber, I am asking Gabe Farias, to take the lead with the business community and to work with my Zoning Commissioner, Ricardo Briones, to find solutions that dramatically increase IDZ utilization throughout the urban core.
The 2017-2022 Bond Election is rapidly approaching, and we are seeking community input. However, I have two priorities I would like to share with you, and ask for your support.
The first is the Frio City Bridge. Rail freight traffic continues to create delays on a major corridor through District 5, interrupting travel and business on South Zarzamora regularly. The community has been demanding a solution for at least 50 years. Last year, for the first time ever, the $16 million Frio City Bridge made the Alamo Area MPO’s priority list. It is my top priority for the 2017 Bond.
My second priority is the 10 million dollar West Commerce Gateway project. The gateway project is currently in design, but we need funding through the bond to bring the project to fruition. Commerce Street dates back to the early 1900’s when for decades it served as the primary street for commerce, which is why it bears the name Commerce. It is a historic street, not only in downtown, but also on the Westside.
For too long it has been neglected and treated merely as a commuter’s highway through the Westside and into downtown. But West Commerce is much more than that, it is the artery that connects the community that has been home to some of San Antonio’s greatest leaders to the rest of the city. It is the gateway to the Westside, and the West Commerce Gateway project has the potential to extend the excitement and prosperity we see emerging in the Zona Cultural into the Westside.
The bond is important, and I ask for your input on bond initiatives and support for these priorities, but I want to address a growing concern that I have with the development of the city’s annual budget.
The 2016 budget allocates $5 million to address deferred maintenance on facilities. Transportation and Capital Improvements requested $6.5 million in 2015 for deferred maintenance on facilities. We also know there is over $1 billion needed to address sidewalk gaps, and that there is an existing need to address deferred maintenance for streets, but neither the 2015 nor 2016 budgets clearly quantified existing deferred maintenance.
I am concerned that the annual budget does not publicly report deferred maintenance, but even more deeply concerned that the city may not have a clear picture of the scope of deferred maintenance requirements. Three weeks ago TCI reported Infrastructure Maintenance Program requirements for 2016 of $67 million and deferred maintenance requirements for city managed streets totaling $26 million. San Antonio manages over 4,400 centerline miles and over 10,000 lane miles of streets. This suggests that at least 93 percent and up to 99 percent of city streets are in good repair, and less than 7 percent of streets require repair. However, TxDOT’s 2014 pavement assessment reported only 81 percent of Bexar county TxDOT managed roads were in good condition. I am just beginning to explore this issue, but considering the TxDOT report, I am concerned the scope of work needed to maintain existing streets is under reported.
The city is required to deliver a balanced budget, which we do, but how we achieve that balanced budget is equally important. Deferred maintenance is an obligation, and it is becoming clear to me that we are not meeting those obligations, nor are they fully reported to the public or city council. This can have consequences beyond budgeting.
For example, city staff recommended an aggressive annexation program in 2015 based in large part on a financial analysis that showed net revenue to the city from annexation. However, upon review of the methodology used during that financial analysis, I learned the projected costs were based on expenditures from prior budgets. Here’s the deficiency with that method. The budget does not account for all obligations, and we don’t even know the full extent of the unmet obligations. As a result, an annexation proposal that seems to yield marginal benefits may in fact yield significant liabilities. City staff has not offered a convincing annexation proposal, and I will not support annexation without a clear picture of the risks and benefits to our neighborhoods and business owners.
My concerns with the budget extend beyond annexation issues. For 70 years San Antonio has followed an auto-dominant development pattern that has failed to balance the needs of our oldest communities with the rapid expansion of services and infrastructure on the fringe. If that development pattern had been successful, it should have created enough value to maintain services and infrastructure. Yet, the existence of at least $1.1 billion in sidewalk needs and an unknown amount of deferred maintenance for streets and facilities suggests we may need to rethink our development strategy.
There are real advantages to infill development, but we also know the oldest parts of the city have older infrastructure that is in more urgent need of repair, but because we do not report deferred maintenance, it is difficult to sufficiently discuss and address those needs. Deferred maintenance is emerging as a significant concern, and until I see robust, reliable data on all deferred maintenance requirements, I will push a “Fix it First” strategy. This includes not only the annual budget, but also the 2017 bond. We must raise the standard of service and care in the oldest areas of the city to the same standard as the newest areas, and that requires a need-based budget model approach. Addressing our budgeting strategy will be a priority for the remainder of this term.
Let’s Paint D-5 is in the second year. $750,000 were allocated to rehabilitation of 80 homes for low income residents, and another $200,000 were secured for fiscal year 2016. This important project provides jobs in San Antonio while stabilizing at-risk housing. This is a cost effective approach to ensuring affordable housing, and I hope to broaden our reach through a bond-funded program throughout the entire city
Last year I initiated Light Up D5, a program to improve residential street lighting, and this year the project has gone city-wide. The project replaces traditional street lamps with energy efficient LED lamps. Not only are the new lamps more energy efficient, but they also produce superior lighting. This program is improving service and safety while reducing the city’s utility costs.
The San Antonio Natatorium serves as San Antonio Independent School District’s training and competition facility. However, maintenance costs and the rising standard for flagship competition facilities have been the driving motivations behind my effort over the last two years to develop a bond project for a new natatorium. This new natatorium will serve the Westside and downtown communities as well as providing SAISD a home for competitions at all levels.
Last year we opened a multi-generational center at Normoyle Park, primarily serving the Palm Heights community, and this bond cycle I am turning my attention to the most western part of District 5 and the Edgewood community. When I look at the benefits Normoyle Park’s multi-generational center has brought to the surrounding community, it is clear to me that Edgewood needs a facility and programming that will support their entire community, from youths to seniors. We have had several opportunities to develop such a facility, but funding remains the obstacle. The 2017 bond gives us the opportunity to overcome that obstacle, and deliver Edgewood a multi-generational facility with a family park.
Around this room you will find poster boards explaining the work we have done the past three years, and I’ll be honest, it borders on bragging. My staff and I have worked hard since I took office in 2013, and these poster boards attempt to communicate our many successes. But, those successes are the shared successes between myself, my staff, city staff, our partner agencies, and most importantly, the neighborhood associations, individual meeting with constituent groups, and the business community.
Several months ago a constituent and life-long resident of the Westside told me, “We have some wonderful gentrification happening.” Now, maybe her terminology was a bit misapplied, but I understood her message clearly. We are making progress, and I love it.
We see new investment, new residents, new businesses, and new kinds of business in District 5. The Westside Creek trails are under construction, and even before they have officially opened, people are using them. The wait for Elmendorf Park is killing me. It is going to be beautiful! Mixed income housing is coming into District 5 and Lone Star is the next big thing that will rival The Pearl. Via Villa, Zona Cultural, and public and private investments are transforming the UTSA Downtown area. Collins Gardens is an incredible gem. Just a few days ago VIA held the first public meeting on the Primo Bus Rapid Transit route that will run down Zarzamora Street through the heart of District 5.
COPS/Metro challenged me to rethink neighborhood transportation to provide safe, walkable neighborhood streets, and I did! TCI is designing the city’s first Paseo. It will be a demonstration project delivered right here in District 5. The goal is to create a shared street that provides service to cars while also being a safe, pleasant, low-stress public place for people walking and cycling. Paseos will connect neighborhood destinations such as residences, schools, grocery stores, churches and parks with streets that are welcoming to everybody, including children and seniors. Paseos can transform streets from roadways owned by cars to public places, and make our front porches an attractive place to be again.
There are absolutely wonderful things happening in District 5, and I thank each and every one of you for your contributions to the District.
Top image: Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) shares her memories of the Neighborhood Place during a recent event. File photo by Scott Ball.