Editor’s note: The following is a copy of the prepared remarks Councilman Ron Nirenberg delivered Saturday afternoon during his State of the District address at Phil Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center. His speech was preceded by a panel discussion on transportation with Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), VIA Metropolitan Transit CEO Jeff Arndt, City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability Director Doug Melnick, and Tech Bloc Executive Director Marina Gavito. Click here to read our coverage.
Good afternoon, neighbors and friends. It is an honor and a privilege to be with you today, so let me start by taking a moment to thank our panelists: Commissioner Wolff, Doug Melnick, Marina Gavito and Jeff Arndt.
We’ve seen seismic shifts in the landscape of San Antonio over the past two decades, and particularly on the future of transportation, where there can be no understating the critical roles that each of them will play in the kind of city we build – for ourselves, for our children and for the world.
In San Antonio, the seventh largest city in the United States with a population of almost 1.5 million, the growth has been undeniable. For those of you who live or work or go to school in District 8, you know that all too well: our population has increased twice as fast as the rest of the city, and that puts pressure on our roads, our schools, and even the lines at the supermarket checkout counter. Trust me, my son knows that when I show up from H-E-B with a half-eaten box of H-E-Buddy cookies.
As it stands today, northwest San Antonio is still one of the most diverse and desirable places to live in Texas. It’s a great place in a great city. And in a city that the state demographer tells us, conservatively, will double in population within 35 years, our challenge collectively is how we prepare for that future so that every family has a chance to thrive in it. In short, how can we be a better San Antonio, not just bigger one? How can we be more effective with limited public resources so that we will be proud and confident of the city we leave behind?
That second question is the one I grapple with every day. It’s the reason why I have continued to host Kids Town Halls at schools throughout the area. Just a few months ago, I walked with a group of students from Garcia Middle School along a sidewalk that they proposed — and you funded — that is now getting them to school safely along Kyle Seale Parkway each morning. That happened because we invited them to speak up at the town hall. They did. Carpe diem. Now it’s a better San Antonio for all Garcia Gladiators.
As you’ve heard me say many times before, I get the simplest — yet most important — job critique I will ever need from my son Jonah, when he asks me each day if I’ve made the world better. He’s seven now, so he’s starting to learn the real nuts and bolts of my job, but his vision of why I do this work remains crystal clear. So it’s through Jonah’s eyes – and those of his peers — that we can truly know if we’ve done our jobs well. To borrow a phrase, we should focus not only on doing a thing right but also on doing the right thing.
Thank you, Jonah, for being here today and for making me proud to be your daddy, and your councilman. And there can never be enough opportunities to publicly thank my dad Ken, who is here, and the love of my life, Erika Prosper. There is a sacrifice of precious time and energy in this work; You ground me, you inspire me, and I love you all.
Let me also introduce the District 8 team and ask them to please stand: T.J. Mayes, chief of staff; Ray Garza, district chief; Maria Cesar, communications director; Gayle McDaniel, zoning director, Jackie Bolds, operations; Alice Aguirre, secretary; Walter Ague and Dean Bibles, trusted advisors; and our team of all-star interns, Maci Hurley, Zack Dunn and Patrick O’Donnell. And friends to me and all in this room, former councilwoman Bonnie Conner and her husband Charlie. Please give them a hand.
Three years ago, when I took office for the first time, I promised to be guided by three essential questions:
1) Is it fiscally responsible?
2) Is it fair and ethical?
3) Have we done our homework?
Even when the heat is on high, the District 8 team has held true to these standards, which is why we have been aggressive about our work for you and for the future of the district and city. They are working tirelessly for you, and I’m privileged to be alongside them.
And let’s be clear, the biggest threat to the future of San Antonio is for our politics not to take a cue from our public. You’ve heard me say repeatedly that District 8 – and our entire city – are diverse places, especially politically. On one side of the street to the other, you will find very different points of view.
But if there is one message that rings clearly from Crownridge to Babcock North, from Tejas Trail to Springtime Road – and from Hardy Oak to South Zarzamora for that matter – it is that our neighbors want bold action. Smart, decisive action. In fact, you don’t just want it, you demand it. And that, friends, is music to my ears.
A strong city is an engaged city with active and informed citizens. Every effort we make to improve San Antonio, from energy efficiency to job creation and water security, rests on our ability to get neighbors like you involved.
But when we ask neighbors to engage, they must be able to trust. We cannot ask them to trust in a system in which ethics and “doing the right thing” take a back seat. Our form of government will only work if residents have faith that its representatives are held to the highest standards of conduct. In the past decade, the City of San Antonio made great progress in strengthening systems to build an ethical culture at City Hall.
So when I dissented on a vote that allowed City Council to waive unilaterally and retroactively, provisions of the Ethics Code, I did so because I shared your concern about the past government we worked so hard to leave behind and the future government that we must remain vigilant to protect.
Since then, I’ve worked with other council members to make sure that never happens again, requesting immediate changes to City policy and strengthened ethics provisions within the City Charter.
These changes include a ban on retroactive immunity; bolstered, independent authority for the Ethics Review Board and ethics auditor; and more mandatory education on ethics rules.
If we don’t have ethics, we have nothing. It is the bedrock of a democratic government, and in a city that still sees voter turnout in the single digits, we should seize on every effort to increase trust.
For the past three years, my office has also been working to make city government more accessible and more transparent.
- Council’s Wednesday work sessions – where we receive briefings and make policy recommendations to city staff – are now televised and archived online;
- In January, we made available online audio recordings of all Council committee meetings;
- Residents concerned about nearby development can access a web portal with real-time information about permit activity;
- By next month, you will be able to watch a live webcast of SAWS board meetings; and
- This year, we will add a platform that allows you to search through real-time municipal budget records to learn how the City of San Antonio spends your hard-earned money.
That’s transparency, and it will be an ongoing effort because the power to verify the work of government should be a right of every citizen.
But access is one thing, a focus on increasing participation is also critical. To be a healthy city for the long haul, we simply must reverse the trend of voter apathy, of well-informed neighbors staying home from the polls. We have been taking active steps to increase voter turnout in San Antonio, from requesting a charter amendment to hold city elections in November of even-numbered years to working with VIA on a new program to give voters free rides to the polls.
Each vote cast is an investment in our future. When we stop and listen to more of our neighbors – and when our politics is held accountable by more of them – we see the future our citizens demand and the conversation changes.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the debate about transportation in our city.
I want you to think back to the year 2000. Pre-9/11. Gas prices were below even what they are today. “Congestion” was waiting a couple of minutes to get through the light from 281 to 410. State and federal funding flowed.
Back then, people didn’t see the need for more transportation options, which is why a ballot initiative about rail failed overwhelmingly with only 10 percent turnout.
Fast forward to today: if we aren’t listening, then we’d assume the conversation hasn’t changed. But has it ever!
In District 8, we’re no strangers to the type of congestion that brings traffic to a grinding halt. While I-10 is beginning to flow again, as with any road in a growing city, we know that it’s just a matter of time before it doesn’t. As we’ve talked about before, getting to and from I-10 (or any other highway in our city) is an extraordinary challenge. We could spend all of our city resources on that alone. And for the most part, we have.
The Hausman Road project, approved by San Antonio residents in 2012, is the largest, voter-approved roadway project in the history of the city. We are expecting completion this year and will transform the two-lane country road into a complete street with hiking and biking trails, later this year. It was our signature – and only – bond project in District 8.
On Wurzbach, I obtained funding for a study that would help us determine what kind of impact opening of the parkway would have. That was followed by funding in the FY2016 budget, matched by TxDOT, to complete smaller projects that will provide relief at the intersections of Northwest Military, Lockhill Selma and IH-10. The City is working double-time to stay on-budget and on-time with construction along Wurzbach, UTSA Blvd, Boerne Stage Road, Huebner Road.
The list goes on. We are accelerating pre-construction design and engineering so that the 2017 bond program can include both De Zavala and Prue Road improvements, the next roads in our east-west triage. And the massive, oft-delayed and financially complicated Fred-Med separation has finally opened up travel in the Medical Center like a successful bypass operation.
But you and I both know the patient. It may have been ok 20 years ago to enjoy a diet that consisted strictly of asphalt and rubber tires. It’s cheaper – at first – and it feels good, until you look in the mirror and the doctor’s bill arrives. It may have been ok to let the future happen without planning, until you realize your children have to deal with the consequences.
Within 25 years, we will have an additional one million people living in our city. That’s another 500,000 vehicles, another 500,000 housing units, another 500,000 jobs. Data shows that our commute times will increase by 75 percent. If we don’t plan our resources accordingly, and instead do to the same things we’ve always done while expecting different results, by definition, that’s insanity. It would be a failure of leadership.
Rather than continue to chase the ghosts of the 2000 transportation vote, or mistake a starter trolley for real transportation reform, we need to recognize a nearly universal sentiment in San Antonio and in cities across Texas:
We cannot pave our way out of this problem. If we could, we would have paved over the hill country a long time ago.
Instead, to ease our transportation issues, we need to define problems first, examine our resources, then focus on solutions. Streetcar was the opposite. It was an economic development solution to a transportation problem.
So what’s different today? Through the SA Tomorrow Plan, we’re taking inventory of the challenges first, then developing comprehensive solutions. The effort, which I’m proud to lead, will be built on what experts call the ‘polycentric economic center.’ In plain English, these are areas of high density, where residents and employees have made the choice to live closer to where they work, where they drop their kids off at school and where they shop and recreate.
Think not only downtown but the Medical Center, Brooks City Base and over a dozen developed and emerging economic centers across our city.
Look at the IH-10/1604 intersection in District 8, and you will see exactly the kind of node we are talking about. The greenway trails and expanded transportation options will connect thousands of residences to our anchor institution of higher education. UTSA will further be connected to La Cantera and The Rim, which will further be connected to some of our largest corporate partners like NuStar and Valero. A resident is literally a short walk, bike ride or Lyft to her child’s school, to work and to favorite restaurants. Our public investment would be most efficient and impactful if we recognize the density that exists, acknowledge that it will increase and plan accordingly.
But can you imagine our city of 1.5 million, and all 500 square miles, as a community of 3 million? That’s Jonah’s San Antonio when he’s my age, and our decisions today need to be bold, not just adequate.
Through our comprehensive planning efforts, we have identified the challenge of density, and if we are still listening, residents are pointing us to the solutions. In a five-week period in October, almost 3,000 surveys at 115 events were received by VIA from around the city, highlighting 16 highly congested corridors in our area. What residents said, resoundingly, is that they want improvement and relief – STAT. This means doing things differently. Not putting more buses on already congested streets. Not widening the roads so that you are paving over your neighbor’s property and waiting for the next construction project. Not just throwing new money at old problems.
Residents want different. They want efficient. They want sustainable. They don’t want a trolley that will sit in traffic in an area of town where they’d rather walk. They’d prefer a fixed route that moves people from one high density place to another.
I’ve been listening to our neighbors on this issue my entire time in San Antonio as a neighbor and as your councilman. If we consider our current and future resources, and we are hearing what residents are saying, they want a comprehensive system with the option of local commuter rail. They want local rail because in 2016, it makes sense if it’s done right.
Can you imagine hopping on a line, separated from the gridlocked roads, that takes you from Medical Center to the airport? Or from UTSA to downtown? What about Port San Antonio to the Forum? That makes sense.
And what’s more, if we’re right, we’ll need to prove it. In 2015, San Antonio residents added language to the City Charter that would require a public vote before any city funds or city property is used to build rail in our city. If we are listening to our neighbors, they want to vote on a better transportation future.
We need a rail debate. We need a rail vote. And we need it next May.
The San Antonio of tomorrow will be built on solving transportation issues for the long haul, so our 2017 bond program – which will be voter-approved – should present bold choices to make that future possible. Let’s make a significant down payment on a multimodal transportation system. I’m bullish about our future in San Antonio, and we should be ready to ask voters to join us in creating it.
It may surprise some San Antonians that they’ve been voting for and investing vigorously in some elements of a multimodal system already. Since 2000, voters have four times approved the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail system, which was envisioned as an “emerald ring” of hike and bike trails around the whole city. With the largest allocation ever – by the largest margin of approval ever – last May, we are filling in gaps that connect strategic points throughout the city.
When we extend the system into commercial nodes like USAA and Valero, retail areas like La Cantera and the Rim, and residential communities like UTSA or any number of neighborhoods and parks, the creekway transforms from simply an amenity into a true option for moving from one place to another. We are doing that, and we are further leveraging that opportunity by placing B-Cycle along the way. Look for more of that in District 8 and around the city this year.
In fact, that is one of the reasons why I initiated the effort to bring Proposition 2 – the creekway trails – back to the ballot last year for your approval. Ample green space is a key component of a healthy city, but these trails can play a vital role in our transportation future. They will extend right through Hardberger Park, stopped today only by Wurzbach Parkway.
So I hope you will also join me in supporting these efforts to connect the trails around the city, and to make a critical connection from north to south right here, with an iconic land bridge that is part of the Phil Hardberger Park master plan, approved by voters almost 10 years ago. The 150-foot wide land bridge would allow people and wildlife to cross safely over Wurzbach – without a car – connecting the two sides of the park and instantly standing tall among the premier urban park features across the globe. The Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy is already hard at work fundraising, but make no mistake, San Antonio residents from across the city want this to happen – it is their priority for a first class park system – and they should be given the opportunity to complete it during the 2017 bond election.
A superior parks system is also deserving of a superior security plan that is concurrent with the development of the trails and parks. So last year, I initiated a parks safety plan that was piloted in the summer and implemented in the FY2016 budget. Among the improvements to keep residents and visitors safe: critical areas in the parks system are now are bolstered by security cameras at trailheads, better wayfinding and signage, “blue light” call boxes in remote areas, more Trail Watch resources and undercover park police. We’ve also funded an intensive public education campaign about how to keep you and your loved ones safe on the trails.
Parks are a vital component to quality of life in San Antonio. But when we talk about the city we leave behind to our kids, two critical issues rise to the top that have a profound effect on the health of our bodies and our pocketbooks: clean air and clean water.
One of the major success stories coming out of San Antonio over the last decade has been our ability to keep air clean, especially in contrast to other big cities here in Texas and nationwide. We are the only Top 10 city that is still in compliance with federal air quality standards. Unfortunately, with new standards adopted this year to protect public health, those days are now almost over.
If we don’t act now, this will cost billions of dollars in regulatory compliance. To businesses. To governments. And to you. To respond, I’m leading an effort in our region as chair of the Air Improvement Resources executive committee. We are assembling an early action plan with agreements on proactive measures among neighboring counties throughout our region. At the city level, I have been working with our sustainability office to bring new strategies to the City Council for adoption. I am hopeful that we will vote on an air action plan in the next few months.
But there is perhaps no more vexing an issue in San Antonio or throughout Texas than water security, and since I first took office, I have made this issue a focus of our work. It’s a big reason why we first became involved in protecting the Bracken Bat Cave, a critical recharge feature over the Edwards Aquifer, which will remain our primary source of drinking water in this region forever. It’s why I pushed against significant headwinds to get the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program back on the ballot last May, which you reapproved by the largest margins ever. It’s why I’ve been working to ban carcinogenic coal-tar sealants from use in San Antonio, where science shows it can have devastating impacts on our water. It’s why I’ve pushed for increased conservation efforts, including permanent Stage One watering.
But in a growing San Antonio, long term water security means not only conservation but also diversification and affordability. So that’s why I’ve been supportive but critical of the Vista Ridge pipeline project. To be successful, we must address a gap in our long term water supply, and we must do so responsibly and with proper protections in place for San Antonio taxpayers. The Vista Ridge contract represents a $3.5 billion public investment that promised to bring in 20 percent of our future water supply.
I voted to ratify that contract on one very important, prerequisite condition: that SAWS ratepayers would not bear the risk of the project failing. I will not support this project under any other scenario, which is why I filed a request — signed by four other council members — that would require SAWS to receive Council consent before any changes are made to the contract.
As a City Council member overseeing a city-owned agency, I have a fiduciary obligation to taxpayers to maintain vigilant and public oversight of this project. I reject any notion to the contrary, as I do any idea that the rate increase to fund the Vista Ridge pipeline was a blank check written on your behalf. I ultimately agree with the SAWS staff conclusion from 2014: that the pipeline is only a feasible and acceptable project if SAWS ratepayers are shielded from risk. And I believe Council has a responsibility – and the authority – to ensure it.
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I am for long term water security for our children and grandchildren. THAT’S our top priority and that should be our true aim. I will work tirelessly to achieve it, while standing with neighbors who demand progress AND accountability.
Long term water security, which proves elusive to communities across the globe, is within our grasp if we remain focused on the future. It is vital to a strong and stable economy. But we can’t just be stable, we must also grow our economy, and nothing we do will be as important as cultivating a workforce that is ready for 21st century careers.
In 2016, we need to unite the disparate partners in education – school districts to universities to community colleges to charters – on the goals of literacy, college and career readiness, and bridging the gap between the skills our workforce has and the skills they will soon need. This is critically important in a community like northwest San Antonio, the center of gravity for our medical and biosciences community, the home of the city’s flagship state university, and the place where three fortune 500 companies work in tandem with a mosaic of small businesses, technical and vocational training academies and our military.
We continue our work with the Medical Center Alliance and the San Antonio Medical Foundation to align our infrastructure priorities amid increasing competition to our north and south. The medical industry in San Antonio comprises almost a third of our present-day GDP, and the South Texas Medical Center area employs roughly 56,000 San Antonians. With nearly 300 acres still undeveloped and an estimated capacity of another 50,000 workers over the next 30 years, the Medical Center is the canvas on which we will see the success (or failure) of our ability to build the San Antonio of tomorrow.
That same kind of opportunity to build a new model exists with the University of Texas at San Antonio, a school that is on a steady upward trajectory to becoming a premiere, Tier One institution. I’m convinced that UTSA has been at the center of our city’s growth and can be one of the main reasons for continued economic development.
An average of 5,000 students walk across the stage each year at UTSA to receive a diploma, helping to produce the work force needed to meet demands across industries. It is the center of the cybersecurity world, a new pillar industry in a burgeoning global field. It is a place where entrepreneurship is meeting sustainability policy in the exact recipe needed to make green tech profitable. In that way, UTSA is an agent of positive change for San Antonio, providing the future leaders, scientists, physicians, engineers, and business executives, that our city, that Texas, and that this country need.
For the past three years, my office has been aligning our capital improvement priorities with the university, to protect your neighborhood but also facilitate a campus environment that befits a top tier institution in a top tier city. Our community stands to gain by increasing the profile of higher education in San Antonio. And as long as I’m serving, I will continue to throw my support behind this great school because when UTSA becomes Tier One, San Antonio will become Tier One.
And who knows, maybe by the time Jonah is my age, when those additional million San Antonians will be living here, he’ll have stayed in San Antonio for the same reason I came from Austin for the first time: to go to college. And maybe in 30 years, he’ll be sitting at a football game, wearing bright Roadrunner orange instead of the burnt orange of his mom’s alma mater.
Whatever the case, in 30 years, Jonah and his peers will have inherited a city that is markedly different than it is today. Whether we exert our influence to ensure that the intervening years are beneficial for that future, rests on our ability to make difficult choices now. We need to think big, to listen and to act with purpose on the vision that our community has established.
We need to lead.
As I see it, that is the state of our district and the future of our city, and that is why I am so proud and privileged to be serving you.
*Top image: Ron Nirenberg (D8) calls for a substantial down payment on the San Antonio to Austin rail project in 2017 Bond. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone