Scott Ball / Rivard Report
More than half of the City of San Antonio's sidewalk budget doesn't actually go to sidewalks, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said Monday, and it's time to accelerate filling in nearly 1,900 miles of missing sidewalks in the city.
Under the City's current construction policies, City staff said during a meeting of Council's Transportation Committee Monday, closing that gap will cost an estimated $760 million and take roughly 50 years. Sidewalks are among San Antonians' top budget priorities – but receive far less funding than streets and drainage projects, which also top the list.
The first step in closing that gap, Treviño said, is implementing a new policy that limits the amount of secondary costs associated with sidewalks – such as landscaping, sometimes unnecessary curb replacements, and retaining walls – and redirecting those funds to the concrete people can walk on.
"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].”
That spending cap will drive the City's engineers and the private sector to start looking at projects differently and inspire cost- and time-saving solutions, he added, calling for the development of a master plan for sidewalks.
"Innovation can't be requested, it must be demanded," he said. Click here to download a sidewalk budget overview the city auditor prepared for Treviño.
City staff with the Transportation and Capital Improvements department, or TCI, agree that collecting community and Council feedback would help inform a so-called "Sidewalk Transformation Plan," but are cautious of Treviño's approach to reducing the scope of sidewalk projects.
Not all sidewalks are created equally, said Anthony Chukwudolue, assistant director of TCI. Some require new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant driveways and curb cuts, others are on streets that require additional safety measures for construction workers, and some require landscape remediation as sidewalk installation can mean tearing up sod and water pipelines.
By Chukwudolue's own analysis, about 64 percent of the budget goes to the essential materials, construction, and safety measures required for sidewalk projects, he told the committee. Some streets don't need a sidewalk, he added, and that has been considered in cost and gap estimates citywide.
The remaining 36 percent should be used for more sidewalks, Treviño said, and a more robust communication strategy with residents to help explain when, where, and why sidewalk projects are occurring near their property. Treviño said he has spent three years trying to formulate better policies and practices regarding sidewalks in San Antonio.
Reducing the scope of work on sidewalks might increase the number of complaints to the department, TCI Director Mike Frisbie said. "Property owners are very protective of their frontages, and they take a lot of pride in that. So when we come there with a project, they want it to function well during construction, and they want it to be nice when it's done."
But better and more sidewalks are already the top request he gets from constituents, Treviño said. "There's no higher number than No. 1."
The City currently prioritizes projects that are near schools, hospitals, parks, libraries, commercial centers, and places that have seen traffic accidents involving pedestrians, Chukwudolue said, but it focuses on those that would fill sidewalk gaps, repair hazardous conditions, and bring existing sidewalks up to ADA compliance.
Technically, the City's charter and development code attribute responsibility of continued maintenance sidewalks to property owners, Chukwudolue said. Like most other American cities, "we have not necessarily enforced it."
Council members agreed that forcing residents to handle costly repairs to sidewalks won't happen, though the city does pursue cost-sharing program for some repairs. City attorneys are looking into the origin and true meaning of the charter language, Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni said, but it may have to do with accident liability issues.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said holding residents responsible for sidewalk repairs is "ridiculous" and "never a winning argument."
Brockhouse applauded Treviño's work on the issue, referring to him as "Concrete Man" and referencing Treviño's shirt from the recent World of Concrete conference he attended.
Treviño also organized a "sidewalk summit" last week that invited dozens of public and private engineers, consultants, and other stakeholders to tackle the industry's challenges.
The 2017-2022 bond allocated $78 million to sidewalks, with $48 million going to stand-alone sidewalk projects and $30 million to sidewalks as part of street improvement projects. The fiscal year 2018 budget dedicated $5 million to sidewalks.
Developers are required to construct sidewalks, but that wasn't the case in older neighborhoods, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said.
Those older neighborhoods with minority populations should be prioritized as the City develops its master plan, she said, because these neighborhoods were often "red-lined" and discriminated against while "wealthier neighborhoods" received public and private investment.
Brockhouse took issue with Gonzales' characterization of fund allocation, saying it "politicizes" the issue.
"I own zero shame [for] racism [or] redlining," that occurred in San Antonio's past, Brockhouse said. ”I own the current condition and status of the community and what we do going forward."
He told City staff to avoid the same kind of "equity lens" used in previous budget allocations that favored council districts with a higher percentage of failing-grade streets. While his and other districts all received a roughly equal base allocation, Districts 1, 2, 5, and 10 received extra funding for street repairs.
Brockhouse agreed that the City needs a more tactical approach to address the worst street, sidewalk, and other infrastructure conditions in the city, but the equity lens should not use political district boundaries, he said. Instead of using district-wide averages, more specific data is needed about where the need truly is, he said. "We almost have to go down to census-tract [level].”
Toward the end of the meeting, TCI staff asked the five-member Transportation Committee what the next steps should be.
“I don’t know if we're fully baked here,” said Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who chairs the committee. He suggested that staff come back to the committee with information about how quickly the City could close the sidewalk gap if it eliminated the secondary costs entirely and, alternatively, if the City cut back on most – but not all – secondary costs.
Committee members, including Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), welcomed the conversation about “how to make our buck go a little further.”
During an interview before the meeting, Treviño said he doesn’t blame City staff for the status quo.
“I respect what it takes to build this [network of sidewalks],” he said. “It’s a complex process. What I think has occurred is in an effort to just get things done, we don’t think that there’s any other way.
"But if we don’t create policy that sets better expectations, he added, "how can we expect to grow?"