It’s hard for a city and its people to move forward when so many are still reeling from Gov. Greg Abbot and San Antonio’s own J. Bruce Bugg Jr., the chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC), suddenly turning their political guns on San Antonio and firing at point-blank range.
That’s because the city and its partners at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have been in the same trenches for six years and more, bound by a series of documented agreements to transform a lifeless, uninspiring commuter street into the safer, showcase urban boulevard that it deserves to be.
Broadway, an astonishing 78% of voters declared in the 2017 bond election, must become an avenue equal to its name.
When my family first moved to San Antonio more than three decades ago, Broadway’s defining characteristic was the sad presence of desperate prostitutes plying the passing drivers. Parallel to the streetscape, the north-south gateway to downtown was dominated by a long-abandoned brewery and a river invisible in the weeds and litter.
So much since then has changed: The 2011 Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) and creation of River North; the construction of the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River under Mayor Phil Hardberger; and the world-class adaptive reuse of the former Pearl Brewery by Silver Ventures into what we now simply call the Pearl. That magic catalyst alone spawned hundreds of millions more in private sector investment in new office towers, residential living, shops, restaurants, bars, cafes and urban energy.
So much more is on the drawing board.
And then there was the dream of reimagining the entire stretch of Broadway from Hildebrand to Houston Street. The city of Alamo Heights later joined forces with San Antonio and, at the urging of TxDOT, allowed TxDOT engineers to redesign the small municipality’s stretch of Broadway.
The new path into a revitalized downtown would be so much safer and more inviting for everyone: new residents, college students, pedestrians and their pets, and cyclists. Traffic would be slowed, all the better for people to stop and savor the many storefront destinations.
That is the picture of thousands of new jobs, rising ad valorem and sales tax dollars, and social, economic and cultural activity. Broadway is a vision of urban rebirth, not simply a street redo.
The Rivard Report and Centro San Antonio came together in early 2016, and with $25,000 in prize money, staged Build Your Own Broadway, a citywide design competition that culminated in one long amazing evening at the Pearl Stable. Nearly 100 creative projects were represented. That work, I have always believed, helped inspire then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her team to make the $42 million Broadway project the single biggest-ticket item in the 2017 bond.
The work on Lower Broadway south of the I-35 overpass down to Houston Street funded by that bond money has been underway for two years. The Midtown TIRZ and Metropolitan Planning Organization have contributed tens of millions of dollars more to the design, planning, and eventual construction of the Upper Broadway segment. TxDOT, which asked San Antonio and Alamo Heights to accept the transfer of Broadway and responsibility for its design and maintenance in 2013, committed to contributing $5 million to the Broadway makeover.
The $5 million payment was never made. That commitment and all the other documentation of the city-state partnership has been shredded in a stream of bureaucratic obfuscation that absolutely no one in this city buys.
There can be no argument that the state of Texas has betrayed the city of San Antonio by breaking an agreement girded by years of documentation, meetings, and communication. Bugg rejected pleas to delay Thursday’s meeting, even knowing that San Antonio’s top elected officials were legally committed to holding their own regular City Council meeting at the same time and thus unavailable to attend the TTC meeting in Austin.
Despite the very unconvincing talk of road safety espoused by state transportation commissioners at Thursday’s TTC meeting chaired by Bugg, Broadway will now remain decidedly less safe. And far less than what it could and should be.
There is talk that Abbott’s anger over an Austin street project served to reignite yet another attack from the governor’s office on big Texas cities. San Antonio’s Broadway project came into his crosshairs, many of his own supporters believe. State transportation commissioners, by a 3-1 vote, obediently pulled the trigger.
Local developers and Republicans, with some hesitation, tell me there isn’t a single developer or major donor to Abbott in Bexar County who has expressed disagreement with the Broadway project or support of the TTC’s decision to break the deal.
I invite doubters to learn more about the safety of complete streets and what Broadway was meant to become. The 42-page National Roadway Safety Strategy issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation this very month on the design of safe streets directly contradicts TxDOT’s one-size-fits-all approach to facilitating more vehicle traffic at faster speeds. Page 22 is particularly to the point.
San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh cited the 2016 signed agreement between the city and TxDOT in a Jan. 24 letter to Bugg that went unanswered. City officials also cited two official TxDOT minutes approved by TTC commissioners in 2014 and 2015 making way for the transfer of more than 2.2 miles of Broadway to the city.
Commissioners and TxDot engineers have disingenuously claimed the city’s plan to implement a “road diet” on Upper Broadway and reduce vehicle traffic lanes was unknown to the state and now justifies their action. The reduction in vehicle lanes has been part of the plan all along, as state transportation officials know. It was reaffirmed as recently as September 2021 when TxDOT sent this Advanced Funding Agreement to City Council for its approval, which was pending.
It’s also important to remember that a cash-strapped TxDOT initiated the “turnback process” of state-owned urban streets in 2013. Read its letters to Mayor Julián Castro here and to Alamo Heights Mayor Louis Cooper here.
“The key to sustainability in transportation is meeting future needs, such as population growth, urban development, and market-driven changes … with practical and publicly acceptable solutions,” the letter to Castro states.
Sound like the city’s Broadway project?
TxDOT engineers actually designed the reduced lane Broadway in Alamo Heights. Claims now by Bugg and TTP commissioners that such “road diets” were unknown to TxDOT and TTC are simply false.
“TxDOT actually designed a reduced lane Broadway for us, they were leading us down this road, doing the environmental work, and more,” said one Alamo Heights official with knowledge of the project. “What was said at the Thursday hearing was ridiculous. We passed with 79% of the vote a $13.2 million bond in 2020 at TxDOT’s direction, money now just sitting in the bank. The rug has been pulled out from under us.”
Check out the City of San Antonio’s map showing how many other state-owned streets in San Antonio have been previously identified for potential turnover, although the status of any future transfers is now in doubt.
How can city planners and locally elected officials ever trust the state again as partners on street and transportation projects? That’s a question with no answer for now.
It is too early to start the conversation about how San Antonio might emerge from this lost battle and make a go of Broadway on its own. For now, truly understanding what just happened is in everyone’s best interest.
This column has been updated to correct the results of the 2017 bond election.
Disclosure: J. Bruce Bugg Jr. is the sole trustee of the Tobin Endowment, a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.