ConnectSA: The Future of Mobility in San Antonio

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Henry Cisneros, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Jane Macon, and Judge Nelson Wolff attended the Rivard Report editorial meeting presenting the SAConnect plan for transportation throughout San Antonio.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and ConnectSA tri-chairs Jane Macon and former Mayor Henry Cisneros participate in a discussion about San Antonio's mobility future in the offices of the Rivard Report.

While San Antonio International Airport was bustling with arriving and departing travelers, area highways were congested with holiday shoppers, and employers were closing early, the Rivard Report opened its offices to city leaders Friday morning.

It was the first such meeting in our new offices at 126 Gonzales St. in St. Paul Square as we continue to introduce the community to our expanded base of operations on the city’s near East Side. The nonprofit Rivard Report‘s board of directors held its first meeting here earlier in the month, and days later, we held an opening of the Gonzales Gallery within our space for 150 visitors, showcasing the works of three local artists.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, former Mayor Henry Cisneros, and attorney Jane Macon gathered in the Rivard Report‘s first-floor conference room Friday to discuss the city’s mobility future, a proposed framework that offers a road map to planned expansion of multiple transportation modes.

ConnectSA also aims to mobilize San Antonians to alter course from our present path to worsening growing congestion and air quality, and the negative impacts street and highway gridlock have on productivity, education outcomes, and quality of life.

City planners expect San Antonio to grow by more than 1 million new residents by 2040 and perhaps half as many vehicles and enough homes and apartments to house them.  The framework that local officials discussed with Rivard Report journalists seeks to anticipate that growth and effectively manage its impact via improved mobility.

Cisneros and Macon are two of ConnectSA’s tri-chairs. The third, VIA Chair Hope Andrade, was unable to attend the meeting for family reasons. The three leaders have proven my earlier writing wrong when I stated that tri-chairs over the age of 60 were not the ideal choices to envision future transportation in 21st century San Antonio.

In fact, the proposed framework is remarkably detailed and well-structured given the eight-month timeframe the ConnectSA team has had to study best transportation systems and practices in 31 other U.S. metro areas – and to adapt what they learned to San Antonio’s sprawling geography, anticipated growth, funding realities, and political culture.

By the latter, I will quote Cisneros, whose ConnectSA introductory mantra includes the words “no light rail, no tolls,” a frank recognition of what voters are unwilling to support even as all parts of the city clamor for mobility solutions.

Read the complete, 25-page ConnectSA proposed framework here.

Courtesy / ConnectSA

A page from the ConnectSA proposed framework lists mobility program goals by 2025. It also identifies potential programs in three time periods through 2040.

Long-term projects require political consensus and continuity, and as three mayors, past and present, discussed the plan Friday, there was a sense that San Antonio is finally coming to terms with the reality that its growth, livability, and future competitiveness depend on enhanced mobility. Cisneros, Wolff, and Nirenberg represent four decades of public service leadership in the city.

Their agreement to work together with VIA Metropolitan Transit, the Texas Department of Transportation, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and other stakeholders signals a level of cohesiveness and sense of purpose that has been lacking until now. A challenge that seemed too politically difficult, too expensive, too complex, and too hard to sell to voters caused years to go by even as other cities tackled and overcame the same issues.

A failed light rail election in 2000 and a collapsed streetcar plan in 2014 have cast a shadow over mobility planning and transportation investment in San Antonio, but 2019 promises to be the year when city leaders and voters get the opportunity to end that period of political and public immobility.

This column is not about the details of ConnectSA, its funding options, its timeline, or its many inevitable challenges. There will be ample time for citizens to participate in the process in the months ahead. Few people I’ve spoken with have had the opportunity to review the framework released last week.

The coming months will bring a series of public forums, workshops, and town halls, a process that will reach into all 10 City Council districts. The Rivard Report will add ConnectSA to our 2019 civic engagement calendar and certainly make the developing plan a central part of our second annual San Antonio CityFest next year.

ConnectSA leaders hope to take public input and feedback and produce a more complete framework by May, which happens to coincide with the May 4 city elections. Work on a final plan will continue with additional public meetings and possibly a ballot initiative in November, when city leaders will ask voters to approve the plan and its initial funding mechanisms.

That’s an ambitious timeline. Everything from city politics to a recession could slow the pace, but the ConnectSA team is eager to move forward in the new year.

Mobility issues are defined differently by people, depending on where they live and work. For some inner-city residents, it’s the historic lack of sidewalks. For bus riders, it’s the need for greater bus frequency. For suburban residents and workers, it’s expressway congestion on the city’s main arteries. For urban core residents, it’s how to move downtown without a car — on foot, bicycle, or scooter.

All of us believe our personal mobility issues are the most important ones and should be addressed as soon as possible. In my most recent column on the subject, I expressed doubt that the ConnectSA plan would be for all of us. Friday’s gathering with city leaders suggests I was wrong. Now it’s up to them to develop the plan’s first five-year phase and sell it. Then it will be up to the voters.

27 thoughts on “ConnectSA: The Future of Mobility in San Antonio

  1. Great follow up article.

    I appreciate Mr. Rivard’s willingness to reverse his opinion. We all can take a lesson from this wise approach.

  2. Some ideas on mobility: Place Park and Rides throughout the perimeter of San Antonio and MSA. It appears that trackless transportation is the latest technology. Direct non-stop routes should be a priority, with traffic lights sensors turning green upon bus arrival, promoting speed and RELIABILITY, from one section of the city to the other. Park and Rides be equipped with Facilities as was done in Stone Oak. Promoting should be convincing to possible ridership, use of WiFi on buses and bus stations, advertise the ease and lack of stressful driving. Allow food, coffee and drink sales.

  3. Interesting read. This is a topic we should all be caring about. We can learn from past situations and these people saw the other end of it.
    San Antonio is miles and miles across. I don’t understand why when transportation needs come up the focus is usually on downtown. We should first create innovative transportation systems in what is now open areas. The areas on the outlying parts of the city. Those areas are filling up with developments. Soon there will be no land available for alternative, innovative transportation to be installed. Once all those people move here it will be too late.
    We keep trying to fit a square peg in the round hole of downtown. Get it going in the loops around SA, build it, work the kinks out, then link it to down town.
    The Primo busses are the only busses that are full. You cannot look at a city as diverse in people, work and culture as SA and think that there is only one answer to transportation.

    When the city, county, and public work together great things happen.

  4. I agree that mobility means different things to different people depending on where you live. Congestion is on the highways -vehicle traffic. After reading the EN today 2 articles provide the challenge: one on new towers in the downtown skyline and one on the proposed mobility plan. How will the people working in these towers get to work? According to the mobility plan it will be by increasing bike/scooter lanes, adding sidewalks, dedicated bus lanes, and one app that lets you pay for transportation-scooters,Uber, etc. Anyone driving the main arteries to any major employment center knows the problem will be cars.

    On another note, I disagree that 3 current and former mayors are the best choice to head this plan…they have all been in office when overbuilding and rezoning led to unchecked growth. Where was the plan for mobility when all of this building was being approved…and is still being approved? It should always have been in the equation so the current situation could have been avoided…and how will any plan be paid for? Increased taxes and fees…they never met a tax they could let go (the tax for protecting the Edwards Aquifer) or or a fee that can’t be levied (increased vehicle registration).
    They really should include voices-such as the remarks made above about offering WiFi, quick travel on main artery ‘buses’, etc.

  5. Dear Santa,

    All I want for Christmas is a quick and easy way to get between the two medical centers that doesn’t include my personal car, and has little to no negative impact on the environment.

    I’ve been a good girl, I promise!

    Yours truly,

    Me

  6. One day when we have a truly representative system, actual transit riders will be in on these discussions.
    At present VIA makes unilateral changes, poorly announced at the expense of those of us who actually use the public transit system.
    Busses are very slow. We need a light rail system that provides adequate service to all quadrants of the city.
    San Antonio is far too large to be stuck with an obsolete and ineffective system for public transportation.

    • Thanks, Pancho:

      About the time that the light rail system which would have accomplished “service to all quadrants of the city” as you describe failed to gain approval of the voters, the land area of the city was half what it is today. By the time our population doubles, I expect the incorporated land area will be six times what it was in 2000 unless the state lege in its infinite wisdom puts the brakes on the municipal annexation machine. At the same time I recall reading that the Los Angeles transit users union was lobbying against more light rail because of the perception that light rail was operating at the expense of the bus service, which was essential to carless Angelenos.

      A couple of years ago the real estate growth lobby prompted the city manager, who prompted the mayor and council, to kill the proposed Broadway light rail line from downtown to Alamo Heights.

      A couple of months ago, San Antonians in all parts of the city, except Centro areas which are relatively well served by the existing transit system, signalled their distaste for the city manager.

      I don’t know what this all means…we can only hope that our leaders have learned something from the mistakes of the past. And Pancho, wouldn’t it be great if we had a transit users union like LA? Let me know if we already have one. I would like to join!
      Ellen B

  7. Robert,

    Both this article and Connect SA’s proposals are very disappointing. I find it astounding that Rivard Report didn’t challenge Mr. Cisneros at all in his claim that “San Antonio has jumped over the era of rail.” What evidence does he have to support this claim? Did he face *any* tough questions at this meeting? why is it that almost all of the major cities in the world (which are almost unilaterally light years ahead of San Antonio infrastructure-wise) are investing in *more* rail, while we have somehow decided we’re already beyond it? What hubris! Sydney, a city I visit often for work and which is arguably the city in the world with the highest standard of living, is in the midst of building a brand new rapid transit rail system—from scratch. How is it possible that such an advanced city like Sydney hasn’t “jumped over rail,” but San Antonio has?

    I also find it curious that you believe that votes from almost five years ago are still relevant, let alone votes from 2000. Given the rapidly changing demographics and influx of people moving into San Antonio *every day*, let alone on a monthly or yearly evidence, how do you know that voters are unwilling to support rail now? I speak with people every day who are strongly in favor of it.

    The problem with the 2014 initiative was that it was perceived as serving only a small sector of our large city—and they were right. Why would anyone support that? What many *would* support, however, is a comprehensive, city wide rail system that would service and reach all in our city, regardless of what part of town they’re in or how much money they do or don’t have. Don’t take my word for it; *Via’s own 2040 survey* found that almost all public respondents said they wanted light rail service:

    http://www.viavision2040.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/2016_0711_VIA_2040_LRP-1.pdf

    So if Via asks people in San Antonio what they want, and the vast majority of them say light rail, why are we eliminating it from the get-go? Why even hold surveys if certain responses are going to be ignored out of hand?

    Something just isn’t right about this. Nelson Wolff is purportedly a fan of rail in San Antonio. The mayor was as well before taking office. Many in San Antonio want it. And yet we keep being told “no.” And everyone just says “okay.”

    If we don’t have the money for rail, then let’s just say so (even this is dubious; a brand new subway system is currently under construction in Quito, Ecuador; not exactly the richest city in the world by a long shot; if they can do it, why can’t we?) But money issues aside, can we please stop this disingenuous “oh we’re beyond rail”? It makes the city look bad. People aren’t stupid; they’ve seen how much rail aids a highly functioning modern city, and our leaders suggesting that it’s outdated come off as willfully ignorant and insular. Not exactly the message we want to send to the types of employers we claim to want to attract.

    Yes, if you present a half-hearted, pathetic rail plan, people won’t be enthused. But if you come up with a comprehensive, visionary, modern rail project that will serve *all* of San Antonio, I believe that people will firmly be behind it.

    Perhaps we could start by asking our leaders to justify their claims that San Antonio is so advanced that we no longer need rail transit, instead of simply accepting it as gospel.

    • Alex,
      Building new rail is very expensive. San Antonio has tons of streets due to its age. These streets can be used with this form of Trackless Rail. I believe this is what the committee had in mind when stating that technologically, we are past a hard rail system. Here is a less expensive system made in China which could be used locally.
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DBnQGO0gmuE

    • This is the Cisneros that brought the Pink Elephant Shopping center, the Alamo dome (theres the team), Menchaca Houses failure(homes torn down). The same San Antonio family’s making a killing with city contracts to their friends.

  8. All of these ideas sounds good, but one interesting point that I haven’t seen is making the Park and Ride locations multi-level and guarded. This would make citizens feel safer leaving their cars all day and entice more people to use these facilities.

  9. Alex, I agree with your comments, especially with the one stating that ConnectSA leadership should not state so emphatically that rail should be left off the table.

    ConnectSA, with future reports, should encourage a wide variety of mobility ideas. Rail should not be ruled out just because rail has been opposed in the past.

    I am disappointed that the current ConnectSA report does not properly emphasize the importance of connecting various modes of transportation. For example, perhaps the 200 miles of the nature trails in the Howard Peak Greenway Trail System can be enhanced with connectivity, with the sales tax revenue. The nature trails can connect walking and biking, safely, to sidewalks, to VIA bus stops, to park and rides centers, to supermarkets, to jobs, and to many more destinations.

    ConnectSA public meetings in 2019 should include best practices presentations on mobility programs of cities throughout the world.

  10. Kim, yes, underground tunnels should be part of the long-range plan for San Antonio’s mobility.

    San Antonio is already a pioneer with an underground tunnel to protect downtown San Antonio from flooding.

    For example, The Howard Peak Greenway Trail System includes a nature-trail loop, that when completed, will be larger than the Loop 410 loop. This greenway system can become a valuable resource for mobility.

    However, maintaining this huge trail system from flooding could cost almost as much as the initial construction of the nature trails.

    Tunnels, dams, and other projects along the creek ways could protect and enhance this nature trail mobility system. The right projects will help protect and enhance our wetlands, lakes, wildlife, and our environment.

    Perhaps tunnels could be shared with utility lines, such as high-speed fiber optics.

    The official Greenway Map is available in the City Parks and Recreation website.

    The official greenway map is also available my clicking on “Government Sites” , then “San Antonio Parks and Recreation” in NatureTrailMaps.net.

    • Thank you. The Sunday Express News has an opinion piece on ConnectSA.
      The authors of the opinion piece (the same folks who sponsor ConnectSA discussed the trackless Advance Transit option describing a mass transit line which will connect the northern extremities to the southern extremities of the city, not just downtown to the airport. Still no mention of actual budget nor any specific references to a comparable transit solution in North America.

  11. The link to the ConnectSA study in the Rivard story appears to require obscure XML software to view. It would have been nice to see which 31 US metro areas were visited by the task force for to identify successful application of rubber wheeled rapid transit in the US as referenced in the excerpt included with the Rivard article. I use metro public carriers whenever I travel and have yet to find anything in this country to rival the multi modal mass transit system in Guadalajara, Mexico, which includes a fixed route level platform rapid travel system running from farthest north to south (unfortunately not all the way to the airport) in this sprawling Mexican city. Pity that our multi-mayored transit task force did not go south of the border to look for cost effective solutions suitable for low density urban areas like San Antonio. Maybe we could even invite the builder of the Guadalajara line to offer an estimate regarding what a similar system would cost in San Antonio. This would help avoid the debacle of 2000, when an ambitious fixed rail system with no budget was presented to the voters, and was soundly defeated.

  12. Overall, there’s some interesting thinking behind this plan and I think they present some very cool ideas in the categories of “Smart Road/Transit Technology” and “Mobility On Demand.”

    However, no mention of attempting to corral irresponsible development practices which create traffic problems that are avoidable, and compound congestion instead of taking opportunities to alleviate it.

    Here’s some other parts that worry me…

    “Reallocate funds from Edwards Aquifer and Linear Creek fund..”
    I’m of the opinion that to continue with quality growth, we must continue to invest in acquiring land and protecting creeks to create long-term value for current and potential residents.

    “Construct high-priority segments of the City of San Antonio’s major thoroughfare plan…”
    The city should work to acquire open space in these areas BEFORE putting major streets through. Perhaps even acquiring land alongside the needed ROW to set aside as linear parks.

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