San Antonio Stopped at a Transportation Crossroads

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Cyclists travel South on Broadway at the intersection of Brooklyn Avenue.

San Antonio has reached an inflection point. Elected officials, community leaders, and everyday citizens of all socioeconomic and geographic profiles are calling for new strategies to address the city’s unacceptable transportation profile.

The time for change has come, but there is no guarantee that change is on the horizon. Right now City Hall is all talk and no action, and many in the permanent bureaucracy seem to believe that a majority of citizens are just fine with the status quo.

Change will come only if the traffic engineers and planners are proven wrong, and if a culture of complacency evolves into one of risk-taking and better anticipation of the population’s future needs.

After 75 years of engineering San Antonio’s network of streets and highways to accommodate automobiles, the future health and well-being of the city depends on San Antonio becoming easier to navigate by bus, bicycle, on foot, and, yes, scooters.

As Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales told a Startup Week audience gathered at the new Frost Tower on Wednesday, advocates for change need to make themselves heard. After seven years on Council as the most vocal advocate for safe streets and equity spending to improve inner city neighborhoods, Gonzales said citizens will have to overcome institutional resistance to change in the design of our streets and streetscapes.

Antonio Petrov, associate professor of architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio, appeared on the same panel. A “political fog” hangs over the city, Petrov said, that seems to blind City staff to the logic of designing urban streets and streetscapes for people rather than just vehicles.

The current staff plan to omit protected bike lanes from the $42 million remake of lower Broadway, Petrov pointed out, ignores the intent of voters who approved funding for a complete street.

Some think the push for bike lanes, however logical, is dead on arrival, I noted while moderating the panel. Not necessarily so, said Gonzales, who chairs City Council’s Transportation Committee. Yet many of the developers most invested in River North along Broadway would prefer on-street parking to bike lanes, and their views carry more weight than voters.

These same developers are breathing new life into the urban core, and the projects they are developing, from the Pearl to Southtown, are creating a greater density of people who do not want to be in cars and trucks. The amazing pace of urban development was on display at another Startup Week panel.

It’s been nearly a year since ConnectSA Chairs Henry Cisneros, Hope Andrade, and Jane Macon issued a report calling for $2.7 billion in new transportation spending over the next decade to meet the mobility needs of a growing and changing population. That figure, however daunting, is far less than what Dallas and Houston have already invested in mass transit.

The formation of ConnectSA was first announced by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in April 2018 as an initiative launched in partnership with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Yet the “dozens of community meetings” promised last December never materialized, and the City’s key Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) department has been without a permanent leader for nearly one year.

When I asked her Wednesday what it would take to catalyze real change, Gonzales called on City Manager Erik Walsh to bring in fresh leadership and thinking to TCI. 

San Antonio is now at a point where rhetorical commitment to change either translates into actual change, or the loss in momentum. Cities everywhere are at work on increasing street safety and mobility options.

Wolff, for one, is not waiting. The former mayor who has served as county judge for 18 years, used his State of the County speech last week to urge a change in local taxing procedures. He called for an election in November 2020 so voters can add one-eighth-cent sales tax to VIA Metropolitan Transportation, which now subsists on a half-cent sales tax. Funds must be found to introduce bus rapid transit service and greater route frequency, key to attracting new riders.

That shift will happen if the San Antonio River Authority begins to collect a modest tax to fund continuing acquisition of sensitive undeveloped property over the aquifer recharge zone and expansion of the city’s hike and bike trail system.

The shift in taxing strategies is the best possible option, Wolff noted, for continuing important environmental and recreational initiatives while also infusing the state’s most underfunded bus system with badly needed new revenue. 

VIA President and CEO Jeffrey Arndt, for one, is not lacking in ideas or plans to improve the transit system if he can secure new funding. VIA Reimagined, the agency’s strategic plan, anticipates almost every major challenge contained in the ConnectSA overview of a city that has outgrown its transportation system.

Some in our auto-centric culture and sprawling city, and perhaps, even their elected representatives, will see no farther than their own individual needs and will remain indifferent to worsening congestion, diminished air quality, and the daily challenges working class families and students face in relying on underfunded VIA.

“San Antonio’s Mobility Future” will come into sharp focus at San Antonio CityFest on Friday, Nov. 8, when two national leaders will be in San Antonio to share the stage with local officials. Leah Shahum, the San Francisco-based founder of Vision Zero, and Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, will appear along with Arndt, TCI’s Interim Deputy Director Arthur Reinhardt, and John Bailey, a Natural Resource Defense advisor who is consulting with the City.

You can start to make yourself heard by attending. Take the bus or come over to St. Paul Square on your bike or a scooter. Click here for tickets. 

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