Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Editor’s note: This article is part of a continuing series of reports and commentaries the Rivard Report is publishing on the 2017-2022 City Bond. Interested contributors can send proposed submissions or story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. For other stories in the series, please see below.
To understand the funding dilemma that city officials face as they manage an ever-sprawling San Antonio at the expense of investing in the urban core, look no farther than the Hausman Road Project in the 2012-2017 bond. The project, which is nearing completion, is the most expensive street improvement project in city history, costing a total of $75,189,555. Yet many in San Antonio would be hard pressed to identify the road’s exact location.
The single 3.4-mile stretch of roadway between Loop 1604 and I-10 West was budgeted in the 2012-2017 city bond at $43.5 million, including $30 million for street improvements and $13.5 million for flood control and drainage work. Because the project involved major utility relocations, a connection to the Leon Creek Greenway and an extension of the hike and bike path, additional money came from Bexar County, SAWS, CPS Energy, AT&T, and the City’s Linear Creekway Park Trails Program and Proposition Two fund.
Add it all up and the cost is $75.1 million, or $22.1 million a mile.
For the suburbs, the project embodies a more forward-thinking and environmentally sensitive approach to such major infrastructure projects. Amid some of the city’s worst traffic congestion, cyclists and pedestrians can now travel on the Leon Creek Greenway, with an added new connection on Hausman Road, from UTSA to O.P. Schnabel Park without touching a city street. New bridgework over five creeks on Hausman Road eliminates four low-water crossings and takes 77 properties out of the floodplain. Runoff will be channeled into grassy medians for filtration before entering city sewers. The Leon Creek Bridge will have a public art element.
No one who has experienced the traffic congestion or periodic flooding of the roadway along this stretch of Hausman Road would doubt the need for the project. The existing roadway was sorely inadequate as it developed into a major byway for traffic coming from Loop 1604 to I-10 East and from I-10 West to Loop 1604 West, a shortcut for drivers avoiding the Loop 1604/I-10 interchange Add to that traffic the comings and goings of area residents, UTSA campus-bound traffic, and people heading northwest to Helotes or across I-10 to Shavano Park.
The Hausman Road Project is in Councilman Ron Nirenberg’s District 8, and while its near-completion promises substantial traffic relief and flood control, no one expects that public investment to generate significant economic development. It’s sprawl relief, a costly fix to a traffic problem caused by unplanned growth. The result is that taxpayers across the city are paying the bill for upgrades needed in the aftermath of continuing suburban sprawl. The only alternative in such locations is to live with gridlock, especially in the absence of multimodal transit options to reduce vehicle congestion.
The same 2012 bond allocated $30 million for improvements in the Loop 1604/U.S. 281 interchange. The two projects taken together account for more than 12% of the entire bond.
“It’s a clear example of the tension between the inevitable costs of unplanned-for growth and our need as a city to be more sustainable,” Nirenberg said. “The reality is I could find four roadways in District 8 of similar size and need that need to be put on the bond, but there simply isn’t the money in the city, much less this district, to address all these needs. We need to stop doing what we are doing, or we are going to be faced with endless demands for expensive projects like Hausman Road.”
Nirenberg chairs the SA Tomorrow initiative, Mayor Ivy Taylor’s effort to bring a greater degree of planning and management to city growth with San Antonio’s population expected to grow by more than one million more people over the next 25 years. SA Tomorrow will actually be three reports: a Comprehensive Plan, a Sustainability Plan and a Multimodal Transportation Plan.
Draft reports will be completed by late April, and a final report will come before City Council in June. The big question is whether the findings and recommendations will be adopted and change the current growth model by addressing land use issues and inadequate municipal policies. That inevitably would shift more of the infrastructure costs over to developers and, ultimately, to those buying houses and undertaking commercial developments in the fast-growing suburbs. Alternative transportation and sustainability solutions to address sprawl and its impact on the environment also will be major components of the SA Tomorrow plan. Those options, too, will come with steep price tags, and perhaps, even steeper costs if nothing is done to change the status quo.
Acting on the SA Tomorrow report will not be easy or inexpensive, and it remains to be seen whether the political will exists at City Hall to impose new development regulations that better align private sector activity and public infrastructure costs. Without significant changes, San Antonio will continue on its current path of unchecked sprawl, with one early estimate predicting that the city limits will expand from 500 to 1,000 square miles by 2040.
The sprawl has a direct impact on public investment in the core city, especially the inner city, where the needs are the greatest and where the cost of infill development is less expensive for taxpayers than the cost of greenfield development in the increasingly distant reaches of Bexar County.
“The public sector shouldn’t control the market, but the public sector should play an important part in setting the guidelines,” Nirenberg said. “The SA Tomorrow report should be required reading for the citizens appointed to the bond committees, and it should serve as a guide for the 2017 bond. Ultimately, the decisions will be political. We have the opportunity in San Antonio to start shaping our growth, or we can let the plan die on the shelf. The choice is ours.”
Street projects in the outlying suburbs are not the only projects being funded. To be fair, the 2012 bond also included $40 million for downtown street improvements, and an additional $15 million for the restoration of Water and Nueva streets inside Hemisfair that were eliminated during the original construction of HemisFair ’68. Hemisfair received an additional $15 million for other park improvements. Other major street improvement projects funded in the 2012 bond were undertaken on the City’s Eastside, Westside and Southside.
The annexation debate coming to a head at City Hall adds to the competition for bond dollars. The next bond cycle is 2017-2022. City staff and stakeholders are starting to focus now on which projects will be funded. Bond funding expands with every new cycle as the city’s tax revenues and ability to service debt grow.
The 2007-2012 bond was $550 million, the 2012-2017 bond was $596 million, and the 2017-2022 bond was initially projected at $700 million. There is a continuing discussion and debate inside City Hall and among various stakeholders about the “right size” of the 2017-2022 bond. Some in San Antonio are eager to see the bond reach as high as $1 billion to assure more urban core projects get funded.
Those stakeholders privately argue that City officials should be willing to risk San Antonio’s AAA bond rating to boost the size and scope of the 2017 bond, a move that would meet serious resistance from City Manager Sheryl Sculley, whose fiscal management over the last decade has made San Antonio the only city with a population of one million people or more with the highest possible municipal bond rating. Proponents of a $1 billion bond argue that a slight downgrade in the bond rating would not be significant given the low-cost of borrowing money, while additional public investment would lead to accelerated private sector investment.
By tradition, few citizens in San Antonio participate in the bond process, despite its importance. The public will be asked to approve the 2017 bond in the May 2017 City Election, but voter turnout is low for local elections and the list of projects to be funded will be set long before then. Citizens interested in advocating for specific bond projects in the city or their neighborhoods need to participate in the process now.
The Build Your Own Broadway ideas competition and March 30 evening event at the Pearl Stable is the latest Place Changing event jointly undertaken by the Rivard Report, Overland Partners, and the Pearl to promote such civic engagement. Centro San Antonio is sponsoring the ideas competition, which is open to everyone, with a March 23 submission deadline.
An article published Sunday on the Rivard Report focused on efforts to win bond funding for the redesign of Broadway from Hildebrand Avenue to East Houston Street, a 3.2-mile stretch that many property owners, neighborhood associations, developers and cultural leaders along the street believe will generate a substantial return on investment in the way of new development and business activity. Such projects are in direct competition for scarce street, bridge and sidewalk dollars in each bond cycle. No one has put a price tag yet on the redesign of this stretch of Broadway, but a group lead by Centro is studying the project and is expected to issue a report in the near future.
Traditionally, streets, bridges and sidewalks represent 55% or more of total bond spending –$337.44 million of the $596 million in the 2012-2017 Bond, and $307 million of the $550 million in the 2007-2012 Bond. Assuming the 2017 bond will total $800 million, that would make $440 million available in the next five-year cycle. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s a small sum when one considers citywide needs for street, sidewalk and bridge work.
The City’s own figures show an accumulated $1.4 billion shortfall in street construction and maintenance and an accumulated $1.1. billion shortfall in sidewalk construction and maintenance. Officials with the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements say there are more than 32 miles of urban streets without sidewalks. Poorly maintained sidewalks on some inner city neighborhoods streets cause pedestrians to walk instead in the streets.
Top image: Construction work along the 3.4-mile stretch of Hausman Road is still underway. Photo by Scott Ball.