Panelists, from left, Bexar Commissioner and Alamo Area MPO Chairman Kevin Wolff, President and CEO of VIA Jeff Arndt, Councilwoman and MPO member Ana Sandoval, and UTSA Adjunct Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Bill Barker. At right, moderator Francine Romero, associate dean of the UTSA College of Public Policy.
Planning is essential if transportation is to thrive
Panel examines needs
as San Antonio area's
population grows rapidly
By GLENDA WOLIN
What if all the residents of Austin were to pick up and move to San Antonio, with all their cars but none of their lanes?
That’s what San Antonio could look like in 2040 unless the city starts taking bold steps now to account for the additional 1.1 million people expected to move to the area in the next 25 years.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg opened his keynote address at the League of Women Voters’ forum on the future of transportation in San Antonio with a grim picture of 2040: Average commute times rising by 75 percent; most major corridors rating a score of F for being over capacity at the highest level; roads with a half-million more vehicles on them every day in a city with an underfunded public transportation system, and more.
But there is good news, he said. The 2018 budget allots much more money for roads and increases funds for VIA, the most underfunded public transportation system in the state – which fortunately is also the most efficiently run. The linear creekway system has become an actual mode of transportation. And discussions are beginning on how to increase direct flights in and out of the airport, a problem that has caused the city to lag in gaining valuable business opportunities.
Big steps needed
These may be small steps, he said, but it’s a necessary start as bigger steps begin toward a multimodal system, which would include roads, buses and high-capacity rail, something that was a key part of his mayoral campaign.
“The status quo is simply not a viable option,” he said. “The costs of doing nothing far outweigh the costs of building for the future.”
Nirenberg isn’t blind to how San Antonio’s last vote for light rail, in 2000, went down in flames.
“Our city had no doubt changed dramatically since then,” he said. “Congestion has increased and will increase much more if we don’t act.
“We will push forward with community input. The plan will be citizen driven and voter approved.”
A capacity crowd at the Central Library auditorium on Oct. 10 heard a panel of transportation experts discuss what needs to be done to bring San Antonio up to par with other cities in the transportation arena.
Cut miles traveled
Bill Barker, an adjunct associate professor in urban and regional planning at UTSA who has spent his career working in transportation, talked
Mayor Ron Nirenberg gives the keynote speech.
about how the goal of governments and institutions is to reduce what’s known as the VMT – vehicle miles traveled, because it affects everything from effect on air pollution to traffic fatalities to traffic congestion to obesity.
His research showed that while San Antonio’s average VMT has risen over 20 years by 1.5 miles per day per person, that of three similar-sized cities – Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento and San Jose, California, has fallen by about five miles per day. Financially, that’s a loss of half a billion dollars compared to a savings of $1.6 billion. The difference? Light rail. How? The other cities had the funding to build it.
“We have the moral obligation to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the moral obligation to reduce heat in San Antonio,” Barker said. “Reducing VMT will do both. We need a 21st Century approach to funding public transportation.”
Funding, however, is a big challenge. The federal government used to fund transportation projects at a much higher rate than it does now. And cities must come up with their own funding to start anyway.
Jeff Arndt, president and CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit – who proposed the scenario of Austin moving to San
Antonio – pointed out that while other major cities in Texas fund their public transit with the full one-cent sales tax allowed by state law, San Antonio allots only a half-cent to VIA, and that is 75 percent of its revenue.
“Dallas brings in six times per square mile as San Antonio,” Arndt said. He also pointed out that Houston, which also collects the full penny of sales tax, built its light rail system with money from its savings account. VIA, he said, isn’t able to save up money with its half-cent and provide service to the community.
County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, chairman of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, also addressed the funding problem. Saying he’s not against light rail, he pointed out that today there is no real source of funding. The only way for a city to raise funds is to have a referendum and ask the people to provide the funds themselves, and we may not
be ready to do that, though we are near it.
He told of an article he wrote about the “threshold of pain.” He had moved to Manhattan but insisted on taking his large SUV because he would be driving to Long Island occasionally. He had to pay $750 a month to park it four blocks away. After two months he finally made the 30-mile drive, which took 3 ½ hours.
“I reached my threshold of pain,” he said. “I fell in love with mass transit. San Antonio is reaching that threshold.” We need to think about the future today.
City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, a member of the Alamo Area MPO, worked for VIA in her first job out of college. She explained how it was a formative experience.
“I went in thinking mass transit is the solution to pollution, and I came out thinking mass transit is a God-given right that everyone should have,” she said, only half-joking. She is a huge fan of mass transit, from buses to light rail to whatever it takes to reach whoever needs or wants it.
She has specific ideas such as making sure there are no barriers to transit:
- People have to feel safe walking to the corner, whether it’s by having good lighting or crosswalks or places to wait for the bus;
- Development needs to be welcoming to transit, without acres of parking lots between where you come out of stores carrying bags and where you catch the bus;
- And transit needs to be competitive with car use, with affordable prices and routes that are timely and go where people want to go.
She also has a vision about how to make it happen. She says the area spends hundreds of millions of dollars on incrementally beneficial transportation projects, perhaps shaving a few minutes off a commute, but never gets a chance to make a transformational improvement.
“At some point,” she said, “it’s time to be bold, to forgo incremental improvement and make a big investment.”
San Antonio may be behind, but it’s not too late, Nirenberg said.
“The advantage of being behind is that you can get it right the first time,” he joked.
He turned serious as he reminded the audience, “Having a multimodal system doesn’t mean you can’t drive your car any more. In fact, it means you’ll have a lot less traffic to contend with when you do.”