Adding post-pandemic vision to the $1.2 billion bond – San Antonio Report

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San Antonio Report
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My column one week ago called on city and county officials to join forces and use their collective resources to move the Bexar County jail complex outside the urban core and thus restore the Westside-downtown connection and spark community development. The proposal went nowhere. I didn’t expect it to.
It did result in a number of community leaders contacting me to support such thinking and to put forward their own big ideas for inclusion in the city’s 2022-2027 $1.2 billion bond. People value their relationships at City Hall and would only propose alternatives to the current bond process on background.

That’s too bad — there are some really good ideas out there. One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is that we need to work on connectivity in this city. Broadband connectivity for every household, every student, is seen by many now as more than an essential utility. The lack of such connectivity is seen as one more measure of racial and economic segregation in San Antonio.
Will the 2022 bond address that 21st-century perpetuation of inequality in San Antonio? Ask your council representative.
The pandemic also cast in a new light the burden of this city’s working class, many of whom work more than one low-wage job and still live in poverty. For many of them, an inordinate amount of time is spent commuting long distances over multiple bus routes to and from home and work. The opportunity cost of that is lost time for parents with their children, less time to prepare nutritious meals, less time to help with homework, less time to recreate and lead healthier lives. This should discomfort every one of us.
Will the 2022 bond do anything to improve the transit options for the population dependent on bus service? Ask your council representative.
VIA Metropolitan Transit remains the most underfunded bus system operating in a major Texas city. A one-eighth-cent sales tax approved by voters for VIA will not kick in for five years. Even then, the new funding will be inadequate. More importantly for the conversation now, a federal infrastructure bill, if passed, will allow cities with local funding for major transit projects to win matching federal tax dollars.
Houston, Dallas, and Austin together have scored billions of dollars in the last 20 years for light rail and other transit projects. San Antonio has not scored at all. If the 2022 bond were to provide seed funding for VIA’s bus rapid transit corridor planned to run from West Commerce Street and General McMullen Drive east to the AT&T Center, federal matching dollars would be a strong likelihood. Major transit projects cannot be accomplished in five-year cycles, so the bond does not address long-range transit needs, a clear priority with worsening traffic congestion, declining air quality, and inadequate bus frequency to attract more riders.
I don’t share Elon Musk’s enthusiasm for a tunnel running from the San Antonio International Airport to the center city, but a common response from readers is a call for a light rail line from the airport to downtown and eventually to other points on the compass.
Similarly, a light rail line connecting VIA’s Centro Plaza on the near West Side and the Robert Thompson Transit Center at the Alamodome along César Chávez Street would speed up commutes for many downtown workers and UTSA students and reduce bus traffic clogging downtown streets.
Tech Bloc is advocating for the closure of Houston Street to vehicle traffic to create a more appealing tech district downtown.
People who lead nonprofits, neighborhood leaders, those engaged in building a more vibrant downtown, advocates for safer streets for the growing number of e-bike commuters, cyclists, and pedestrians, together share a vision for what could be called an East-West Investment Corridor.
Many of the proposed bond projects, such as those put forward by Velocity TX on the near East Side to transform East Commerce, Houston, and Nolan streets, or those put forward by the newly formed nonprofit mobility organization Activate SA, which include connecting safe streets with the greenway trails system, will probably not make the cut.
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City staff will classify them as “considered,” citizen bond committees will hold public hearings, and citizens will press for such investments. But in all likelihood, the 2022 bond will focus very little on vision and much more on business as usual.
Street, bridges, and drainage projects will continue to gobble up the majority of available bond dollars. Much of that spending is simply made necessary by the city’s relentless, sprawling growth and a city designed for cars, trucks, and SUVs rather than people. City policies do not sufficiently incentivize urban core development and do not hold suburban developers accountable for the real cost of new single-family subdivisions.
There is no space in this bond planning process for challenging the status quo.
Focusing on 21st-century connectivity, and the Eastside-Westside corridor in concert with continued downtown investment, would represent a major break in business as usual. Powerful interests would line up in opposition. Such a focus, however, would yield transformative results. The return on investment for the city would be profound, far more than we currently dare to imagine.

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.