Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have formed a nonprofit, ConnectSA, to increase awareness of and advocacy for mass transit planning and solutions in the San Antonio region, Nirenberg announced during his first United State of the City speech on Tuesday.
Eventually, that nonprofit could become the driving force behind a modern multi-modal transportation system plan that Nirenberg said could come before voters as soon as May or November of 2019.
Nirenberg also provided details about the new Blue Chips Jobs Council, an informal group of San Antonio business leaders who have agreed to help the City recruit corporations to invest in San Antonio. The council’s efforts, and work being done by the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation and the City’s Economic Development Department, will create 70,000 jobs in the area, Nirenberg pledged – “more jobs than any mayoral administration in San Antonio’s history.”
In his speech to about 1,200 business and civic leaders who packed the large ballroom in the Henry B. González Convention Center, the mayor presented the need for better transportation options as an issue crucial to economic development.
"The time has come for us to go all-in on mobility for the future," Nirenberg said of ConnectSA. "This nonprofit will facilitate community input, conduct research, and build support to pave the way for citizens to vote on modern transportation for our city in 2019.
"And I’m confident when they do, they will say yes. We want better. No more status quo."
Nirenberg campaigned on a comprehensive, affordable transportation network for San Antonio as he ran against former Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2017. ConnectSA, it seems, is Nirenberg's attempt to follow through on that promise.
"The goal is a mobility system that utilizes technology and focuses on consumer choice," Judge Wolff told the Rivard Report via text.
The nonprofit will raise private contributions, work with VIA Metropolitan Transit and other groups on mobility, and encourage voters to "approve a comprehensive mobility plan that includes multimodal mass transit corridors" and funding for the first phase.
Jeff Arndt, president and CEO of VIA, attended the event Tuesday and told the Rivard Report afterwards that ConnectSA's leadership team will provide "super-charged horsepower" to advancing the transit authority's existing plans. Among other things, the 2040 plan has identified rapid transit corridors – where growth and congestion call for higher-frequency service – and laid out possible avenues such as transit-oriented development, which would require coordination with public policy to make such development possible.
"Now is the time to take that plan forward with that extra horsepower to have the public assess it," Arndt said.
Hope Andrade, the outgoing VIA board chair; former Mayor Henry Cisneros; and former City Attorney Jane Macon will serve as chairs for the ConnnectSA board, which also will include 20 to 25 business, County, City, and community leaders.
At first, ConnectSA will focus on getting the word out about the need for a "coherent transportation system," Cisneros told the Rivard Report. "Then it will flow from there into individual initiatives ... making the case for bond elections and so forth."
Essentially, it could become a political action committee for ballot items related to the plan, he said.
Speaking to reporters after the event, Nirenberg likened the new nonprofit to the Brainpower Initiative launched in 2011 by former Mayor Julián Castro that ultimately got Pre-K 4 SA on the ballot in 2012. Fifty-three percent of voters approved the increase of local sales tax by one-eighth of a cent to go toward early-childhood education. That initiative was also introduced during a State of the City address.
Unlike public agencies such as VIA or City departments, ConnectSA can advocate for specific policy changes and funding mechanisms, Nirenberg said.
"Today, 79 percent of San Antonians – and most of you – commute alone," Nirenberg told the audience. "With area roads on track to receive half a million more cars by 2040, something’s got to give. Traffic engineers are clear: business as usual – just building more roads and highways – means average commute times will increase by 75 percent."
VIA operates with half the sales-tax funding of other public transportation entities of similar size, translating to longer travel times for passengers. City Council approved a fiscal year 2018 budget that increases funding by $4.3 million to cut in half hour-long wait times between buses in some parts of the city. If another $10 million is approved in the 2019 budget, VIA could cut wait times even further on some routes.
A City Charter amendment, approved by voters in the May 2015 election, requires a public vote on all rail projects involving the City. It's possible, however, that the mobility plan may not include rail projects as trackless transportation technologies emerge.
"The city does seem to have an aversion to light rail, but I think one of the things we’re learning is that multimodal doesn’t necessarily translate to light rail – in some sense that’s a fashionable thing in cities," Cisneros said. "But there are other cities where maybe other modes make more sense … It’s not about selling light rail, it’s a bigger set of issues than that.”
Many San Antonians have a bad taste in their mouth after the failed attempt to bring a streetcar system to San Antonio. Local and outside groups mounted a successful campaign against the project that led to the charter amendment. A non-rail option would not need to go before voters, but Nirenberg said it's important to have community buy-in of the plan regardless.
“I'm increasingly interested in the trackless options that we’re seeing out of Asia and Europe, and that is because we have so much geography to cover,” Nirenberg told reporters. “We want to have a future-proof technology that can be scaled as ridership grows … trackless options – as long as they ride on their own right of way – with traditional infrastructure, to me, makes the most sense. But, again, in order to do this right we have to leave all options on the table.”
During his speech, Nirenberg also called for an increase to the City's street maintenance budget next year. The fiscal year 2018 has allocated $99 million; Nirenberg wants $110 million for 2019.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who led the effort to increase the City's budget for VIA, will serve on the board with Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), and State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio). The remaining members "will be chosen with input from City Council, the County, stakeholders and the tri-chairs," according to a news release.
While San Antonio lags behind other Texas cities in terms of long-term, multimodal planning, Saldaña told the Rivard Report, that could work in its favor.
"That could be a strategic advantage if you consider: how do you future-proof a large investment? Is it trackless buses? Is it driverless vehicle systems?" he said. "They’ve laid tracks – they’ve laid down their beds. We happen to be in a position where technology is breaking and we can future-proof with the community’s input.”
The solution has to be one that takes care of the existing ridership and the so-called "option rider," Saldaña said. He wants to fix it for those who ride the bus for two hours to get to work every morning and also "for the [big employer] of the future who will say, 'Do you have a comprehensive bus system that meets the needs of my future employees?'"