More than six years after the state officially handed San Antonio over 2.2 miles of Broadway from Burr Road at the border of Alamo Heights south to the Interstate 35 overpass, Texas Department of Transportation officials have stunned city officials by abruptly taking steps to rescind the deal.
The Texas Transportation Commission is set to meet Thursday morning to officially rescind minutes it approved in December 2014 and amended in February 2015 approving the transfer. The posted agenda states that an official Project Acceptance letter was never issued and thus the state retains ownership of the 2.2 miles of street and can rescind approval of the agreement.
“The commission is to consider a determination that [the tract] continues to be needed for state highway purposes,” the agenda states.
City officials say TxDOT staff has been unable to explain the reversal or what purpose the street would serve for the state going forward. Over the last decade, TxDOT has moved to transfer to local municipalities urban streets that once formed highway links between Texas cities. Broadway was once part of Texas 368 connecting to Austin Highway north to the capital.
“They’ve been our partner for six years, and now, suddenly they are taking a 180 degree turn for no credible reason,” said Razi Hosseini, the city’s director of public works.
The city is presently engaged in the $42 million redevelopment of Lower Broadway from the I-35 overpass south to Houston Street, approved by voters as the single largest project in the 2017 bond. The city has invested millions of dollars more in designing and planning Phase Two of the project from the I- 35 overpass north to Mulberry Street. Significant private sector investment in the way of new mixed use and residential development along the corridor has occurred over the last decade.
“This sudden departure apparently stems from Gov. Greg Abbott, who has personally opposed a similar street project in Austin and has now intervening in our project,” said one city official who requested anonymity while efforts are still underway to preserve the city-state agreement. “This seems to be his way of showing his opposition to urban projects to reduce traffic and to add bike lanes and other urban amenities to city streets.”
The Texas Department of Transportation is chaired by J. Bruce Bugg Jr., a San Antonio attorney and businessman who serves as the sole trustee of the Tobin Endowment and is a founder of the Bank of San Antonio. Bugg was appointed to the commission by Abbott in 2015 and elevated to chairman by the governor in 2017.
Bugg did not respond to a request for comment, but Bob Kaufman, TXDOT’s chief communications officer, sent a statement in response:
“On Thursday, January 27, the Texas Transportation Commission will consider a minute order that will confirm that State Loop 368, Broadway, in the City of San Antonio has been and continues to be part of the state highway system. This action would rescind prior minute orders that considered a future transfer of the SL 368 to the City of San Antonio. This action is needed as a result of local proposals to convert the existing three lanes to two lanes in each direction and remove turn lanes along SL 368. These local proposals would result in a significant increase in congestion. TxDOT remains focused on strategies to decrease congestion and will work with the City and other local stakeholders to develop solutions for SL 368 that serve to maintain the existing three lanes in each direction while addressing the mobility and safety needs of all users.”
City and TXDOT officials met virtually Tuesday morning at the city’s request after it had learned of the state’s plan to rescind the agreement and after unsuccessful efforts by City Manager Erik Walsh to contact Bugg.
A Jan. 24 letter from Walsh to Bugg seeks postponement of the Thursday action and includes a document signed by the city and TXDOT outlining the project’s scope and terms.
“We asked for the meeting because [we] wanted to know what suddenly changed their view after they had been with us since 2014,” said Hosseini. “They were not giving us a good answer, and that’s when Gina Gallegos, the district engineer for TxDOT, said ‘the chairman has received complaints’ and we learned the real reason.”
Gallegos and William Hale, TxDOT’s chief engineer, said Bugg had received complaints from unnamed individuals in San Antonio objecting to the city’s planned implementation of a “road diet” on Upper Broadway, eliminating two of the six lanes of vehicle traffic to allow for protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks for pedestrians, and the planting of shade trees.
“They said they had done traffic studies in 2016 and 2017 that showed our project might create problems on U.S. 281 or other roads,” Hosseini added. “We asked why they had never shared those studies or any concerns with us six years ago. They didn’t really say anything.”
City staff and legal counsel will brief City Council in executive session Wednesday to consider what options, if any, the city has to challenge the state’s action if TxDOT follows though on Thursday with the cancellation of the Broadway transfer.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg tweeted a challenge to Abbott Tuesday evening in response to the state’s planned action.
“The lack of response to our inquiries on this is disconcerting, and makes me wonder what the agenda is? This does not pass the smell test, it’s wholly inappropriate what they are doing, and I would argue it’s unethical,” Nirenberg said Tuesday. “This is an extremely important corridor. We’ve had our own local debate about how to move forward, but more than 70% of the voters approved the project. There’s been a lot of public investment, and great private sector investment in the corridor.”
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