This article has been updated.
After the Texas Transportation Commission voted to take back a portion of Broadway from the City of San Antonio last week, the City of Alamo Heights finds itself in a similar position: potentially unable to follow through on its plans to redevelop the street with fewer lanes and more amenities.
But unlike San Antonio, which partnered with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) on its plan, TxDOT took an active role in coordinating a revamp of a portion of Broadway that goes through Alamo Heights since its inception in 2015, city officials said.
Now, the state highway department appears to be torpedoing its own work.
The 0.7-mile project in Alamo Heights was slated to start at the termination of San Antonio’s part of the project at Burr Road. Plans called for adding protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks, drainage improvements and safer turning lanes and parking spaces on Broadway north to Austin Highway.
But on Jan. 7, William Hale, TxDOT’s chief engineer, sent a letter to Alamo Heights’ mayor stating that the project cannot reduce the six-lane roadway to four lanes.
“It has come to the attention of TxDOT’s Executive Director [Marc WIlliams] that the City of Alamo Heights is working on plans for a lane reduction along [Broadway],” Hale wrote. A lane reduction “will not meet the needs of the state transportation system” so the project “will not be approved at this time.”
However, TxDOT has been aware of possible plans to reduce lanes on Broadway since as early as 2015, schematics designed by a state consultant show. All four design options reduce the street to four lanes, according to the schematics acquired by open record requests.
Mayor Bobby Rosenthal responded to TxDOT that the city is “extremely disappointed and baffled with TxDOT’s reversal” in the project that has been under development for seven years.
“I would point out that during this time TxDOT has been leading [emphasis his] the major design efforts for the portion of Broadway located in Alamo Heights, all clearly noting Broadway with 4 lanes and a dedicated turn lane in lieu of 6 lanes and a dedicated turn lane,” Rosenthal wrote.
With TxDOT’s support, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has committed $10 million to the Broadway project and TxDOT itself has committed $4 million. Other funding was dedicated to the project through the City of Alamo Heights (nearly $21 million), Bexar County ($7.1 million) and the San Antonio River Authority ($1.3 million).
In his letter, Hale cited concerns about the negative impact the project would have on capacity and congestion for the state transportation system.
A lane reduction “will not meet the needs” of that system, he wrote.
The department’s clear lanes initiative, a 2015 plan by Gov. Greg Abbott, aims to reduce traffic congestion throughout the state. But plans for the reduction of lanes on Broadway remained on the drawing board for years after Abbott’s initiative launched.
Traffic studies commissioned by the state show “minimal impact” to traffic on Broadway, Rosenthal informed TxDOT in a letter Jan. 26. “The commute from Burr Rd to Austin HWY at peak hours after 20 years [emphasis his] would increase by a minute or less by TxDOT estimates. This was an acceptable sacrifice to a significant majority of our community as the benefits of a newly designed street (which is not a highway) certainly outweighed the minimal traffic impact.”
But in October, TxDOT officials halted its meetings with Alamo Heights officials regarding the project, according to emails between city and state officials.
“All bi-weekly meetings stopped after September 17th after I was notified that the project had been suspended pending additional information and another traffic study would need to be performed,” Alamo Heights City Manager Buddy Kuhn wrote in a letter to Gina Gallegos, engineer for TxDOT’s San Antonio District.
During the Texas Transportation Commission meeting last week in which it voted to rescind an order ceding a 2.2-mile portion of Broadway to the City of San Antonio, Gallegos described traffic studies conducted by the department that show increased congestion on lower Broadway, San Antonio’s portion, if traffic lanes are reduced.
It’s unclear if separate traffic studies were recently performed for the Alamo Heights portion. TxDOT officials did not respond to an interview request in time for publication.
Another major component of the project in Alamo Heights was reducing the floodplain along Broadway.
“Lower Broadway is built in an existing creek bed and for many years has been the source of cars floating down the street and the inundation of existing businesses flooding,” Kuhn wrote.
Citing a 2019 study by economist Steve Nivin, Kuhn said reducing the floodplain could generate almost $48 million in combined tax revenues over 20 years by opening more than 29 acres to new development.
Rosenthal and Kuhn declined to be interviewed for this article, but said they would meet with TxDOT officials this week to try to find a path forward.
After a Wednesday meeting with San Antonio and Alamo Heights leaders, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. released a statement indicating that they are still trying to find that path.
“Two items emerged from the discussions,” Bugg stated. “First, city leaders acknowledged that Broadway is, in fact, owned by the state of Texas. Second, I am asking TxDOT staff to work with both cities to develop project plans on Broadway that can address mobility and safety for all users of the roadway, while preserving the capacity that exists today.”
In a separate statement, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg clarified that city made “no concessions or acknowledgments” during the meeting, rather he agreed to continue the conversations.
“We are talking with Texas Department of Transportation officials to see if we can find a path forward for the Broadway corridor project that the community envisioned and voters approved,” Nirenberg stated.
As part of a statewide effort to “turn back” former highway links to local municipalities, TxDOT moved in 2014 to transfer to San Antonio the portion of Broadway, from Burr Road to Interstate 35. On Thursday, the commission voted to transfer authority over the lower portion of Broadway back to the state.
Alamo Heights City Council approved a resolution to formally request a turnback of Broadway in August, and one TxDOT official indicated that it could be considered by the commission November, Kuhn wrote.
Sometime between mid-September, the last time the city and state project teams met, and early October, when meetings were canceled, state officials apparently decided to disregard its previous work on the project.
That work stretches back to 2013, when then-TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson sent a letter explaining the turnback program to Louis Cooper, then the mayor of Alamo Heights.
Wilson encouraged Alamo Heights’ participation.
“The turnback program is envisioned as a cooperative venture between TxDOT and local jurisdiction to increase local control,” he wrote. “Some benefits to local jurisdictions include the ability to control driveway access, speed limits, on-street, and road closures, and the ability to control maintenance scheduling that is more responsive to the needs of local residents and businesses.”