Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Nearly 1,900 miles of streets need sidewalks in San Antonio, according to City staff, a gap that will cost an estimated $760 million and take roughly 50 years to fill at current funding allocation rates and implementation costs.
City staff with the Transportation and Capital Improvements department, or TCI, and infrastructure consultant firm AECOM are working on a conceptual Sidewalk Master Plan, a first for San Antonio, to address the problem of aging or non-existent sidewalks.
“Today, there is no dedicated program toward repairs of sidewalks,” said Anthony Chukwudolue, TCI’s assistant director. “The goal of the master plan is to create a framework that will then drive the programs … [and] selection for sidewalk gaps and repairs.”
The plan would establish funding and timeline goals to complete the city’s sidewalk network in phases, prioritizing the most-needed sidewalks and those in the worst condition among the more than 5,000 existing miles of sidewalks. On Monday, City Council’s Transportation Committee discussed how the City should prioritize those projects and agreed that projects that improve pedestrian safety and are close to bus stops should be given top priority.
“Pedestrian safety should be first, even above the [proximity to] schools,” said Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5). Gonzales led City efforts to adopt a local version of the national Vision Zero Initiative in 2015 aimed at eliminating pedestrian injuries or deaths on roadways. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 46 pedestrians were killed on the city’s roads in 2017, down from 66 in 2016 and 48 in 2015.
While the prioritization and construction methods for a robust network of sidewalks may be complicated, Gonzales said, it’s a relatively easy issue to resolve when compared to other more complex issues such as homelessness or obesity. “We know how to build sidewalks … the problem is money,” she said.
The proposed – and very preliminary, Chukwudolue emphasized – scoring matrix for sidewalks weighed several different elements to rank the need for sidewalks, including proximity to schools, hospitals, transit access, other destinations, and the sites of previous auto-pedestrian accidents, and the incidence of unfavorable obesity statistics. (See the chart below.)
Some streets don’t need sidewalks, Chukwudolue said, and that has been considered in cost and gap estimates citywide.
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) asked staff to recalculate the results without the obesity statistics criteria.
“I’m rather concerned that we’d be solving for obesity and excluding neighborhoods where safety may have been a bigger issue,” Pelaez said.
City staff will work to identify possible funding sources, Chukwudolue said, and it’s possible that the master plan and partial implementation of it will be part of the fiscal year 2019 budget conversation this summer, should City Council agree to move forward with it. Chukwudolue will present progress on the plan to the full City Council at a later date for more discussion before then.
The price tag for addressing sidewalk needs depends on how City Council wants to go about installing and repairing sidewalks. City staff presented three options: a deluxe model, which would include curbs, driveway sections, landscaping, and retaining walls for all sidewalks; a bare-bones model that focuses on installation of sidewalks and severely limits secondary infrastructure; and a compromise between those two models.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who does not sit on the Transportation Committee, challenged City staff in February to find more innovative ways to save money on sidewalk projects so that the citywide network can be built out faster.
“I’m not saying those ancillary things should be absent,” he said. “I’m saying it should be a lot less of the total. … This is going to allow [the City] to have more capacity [to fix sidewalks].”
About 64 percent of the budget goes to essential materials, construction, and safety measures required for sidewalk projects, according to Chukwudolue’s own analysis. Trevino says the remaining 36 percent should be used for more sidewalks.
Gonzales on Monday cautioned against narrowing the project scope when it comes to sidewalks, because the community may interpret a bare-bones approach as City incompetence.
“If the city can’t even build a sidewalk right, how can we trust them?'” she said, conceiving a resident’s thoughts. “I think we need to do it right the first time …even if it means fewer and less [sidewalks].”
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) suggested that the third, compromise option seems to be the most “flexible” approach for saving money and giving neighborhoods what they actually need.
He also re-emphasized his concerns about how projects are prioritized and distributed throughout the city – that historically neglected neighborhoods should not receive all of the investment.
The so-called “equity lens” should be used to distribute funding to the worst of the worst sidewalks and the highest need regardless of whether it’s located in an area full of bad sidewalks or is merely an outlier.
“I’ve got streets that [score] zero just like any other district,” Brockhouse said, referring to the 2018 budget that allocated more money to council districts with a higher percentage of failing-grade streets. District 6 and the other districts all received a roughly equal base allocation, but Districts 1, 2, 5, and 10 received extra funding for street repairs.
“You cannot cut us out again,” Brockhouse said. “What we did last budget cycle was embarrassing.”