City leaders are discussing priorities for a 2017 bond issue, starting off with a figure of $750 million for preliminary planning purposes. But that falls far short of more than $2 billion worth of street and sidewalk work that the City wants to focus on during its next bond program.

City Council had a lengthy planning session on Wednesday for the 2017 bond, which already looks to be the biggest in the City’s history, far surpassing the $596 million package that voters approved in 2012. Michael Frisbie, city engineer and director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, told the Council that whatever proposals end up in the bond should support the SA Tomorrow growth plan.

The bond is an opportunity for the City to address a variety of basic infrastructure needs citywide, he said.

“It needs to be a reflection of the SA Tomorrow process,” Frisbie said of the long-range comprehensive plan that is designed to cover land use, sustainability and transportation. Drafts of the three-pronged SA Tomorrow plan have been produced and a new round of public meetings is taking place this week.

While the bond undergoes the planning process, he said, Council members should keep in mind that potential projects should increase connectivity, continue existing projects, show investment in major corridors, aid ecological sustainability, and support the Vision Zero pedestrian safety initiative.

(Read More: Urban Literacy: What is a Municipal Bond?)

Frisbie gave an overview of what type of infrastructure issues should be covered by the Council and the bond committees that Mayor Ivy Taylor and council members will soon appoint. There are 4,066 miles of City roads in need of some kind of improvements, ranging from minimal repair to reconstruction. This comes out to $1.4 billion in street work needed. There are 2,177 miles of sidewalk “gaps” that need to be filled, that’s about $1 billion worth.

Much of the roads needing work citywide require a small level of repair, namely crack-seal or slurry-seal, Frisbie said. The City’s Infrastructure Maintenance Program, supported by the annual fiscal year budget, typically funds these kinds of fixes.

As of now, Council District 2 on the Eastside contains the most miles, 95, in need of reconstruction. That makes up 20% of the district’s entire network of city roads, needing $189 million worth of improvements. District 1, which includes downtown, contains the second-most miles, 81, requiring $162 million worth of reconstruction. Frisbie said typically older parts of the city will have roads in need of work, especially closer to the urban core.

“We need to be investing in our streets before they get to the point of total deterioration,” he said.

When talking sidewalk gaps, District 3 on the Southside has the most miles of gaps with 335 that need $151 million in improvements. District 2 has the second-most miles of sidewalk gaps, 287 require $129 million in work. Frisbie explained that some council districts were development is still taking place, such as District 10 on the Northeast Side, actually tend to have more sidewalk gaps than an older, filled out area such as District 5 on the near Westside.

By comparison, District 10 has the fifth most sidewalk gaps, with most clustered in older neighborhoods closer to Loop 410. District 5 ranks next to last on sidewalk gaps, with gap mileage more spread out but not as pervasive.

This graph outlines the cost of city road repair requirements by City Council district. Illustration courtesy/City of San Antonio
This graph outlines the cost of city road repair requirements by City Council district. Illustration courtesy/City of San Antonio
This graph shows the number of miles of city roads requiring reconstruction by City Council District. Illustration courtesy/City of San Antonio
This graph shows the number of miles of city roads requiring reconstruction by City Council District. Illustration courtesy/City of San Antonio

“The neighborhoods were built about 50 years ago. It’s not an area that doesn’t want sidewalks, it just didn’t get them,” said Frisbie.

Realizing the many needs in his district, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) asked how his area could have gotten behind much of the rest of the city on major road and sidewalk improvements. He asked if this was partially the result of the City doing better at managing bond projects – ensuring they are finished on time and under budget – and at determining the varying conditions of streets citywide.

“Our data collection is getting better,” replied City Manager Sheryl Sculley. She added that because TCI supervised bond projects, the City has significantly improved the rate at which projects are tracked and completed.

While proportionality is a guiding principle in the bond planning process, Warrick asked about the odds of the 2017 bond proposing a significant amount of money to address needs in his district.

“Proportionately, do I get the most money for these projects?” he added.

Frisbie and Sculley said that’s where it is crucial for residents to voice their opinion about priorities in the bond planning process, and communicate those concerns and ideas to their representatives on the Council and bond committees. Sculley noted how the 2012 bond allocated a large amount of funds in District 10 toward the development of a senior center there.

“It depends on part of the community and what the needs are. It really depends on the Council and the policy direction they give. Its also on the people you appoint to the bond committees,” she added. Council members appoint three residents per committee. The mayor appoints two co-chairs per committee and three tri-cjairs for oversight of all committees. The committees are expected to meet October through December and then make recommendations to the Council before the end of the year.

Frisbie also briefed the Council on the 2012 bond, where $244 million has been actually spent on projects thus far. All $596 million has been committed. The city is ahead of schedule on five projects, on track for 123 projects, off schedule on nine projects, and behind schedule on three projects. Fifty-one projects currently are under construction, including Water and East Nueva streets in Hemisfair, improvements on the Theo/Malone Avenue corridors, enhancements at Pearsall Park, and upgrades on Hausman Road.

Some council members said while the needs appear great for the 2017 bond, it is critical that City officials do plenty of legwork and promote community input.

“I think its important we take a look at all these needs, that we get it right the first time,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). “Taking time for due diligence is much needed.”

Preparing the 2017 bond might be the most important task that the current Council gets to carry, said Councilman Ray Lopez (D6), because it has potential to boast projects with long-lasting impact.

“We’re going to spend the next few months discussing components of this bond and I think we’re going to find it difficult to spend money on anything else like housing or other very worthy things,” he added. He also said the public must be included in the planning process from the get-go.

Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) said residents who in the end will determine the bond’s fate at the polls should know that the City is concentrating on what most everybody is concerned about: infrastructure.

“Those basics are still what everyone thinks about and we need to take care of them,” Gallagher said. “This is a politically sensitive time. We want to make sure people know we’re spending money wisely. Let’s stay with the basics. Let’s not go with the projects that make us happy, but with projects that we need.”

Mayor Taylor said the public should also keep in mind how well the City has managed its previously approved bond projects, especially infrastructure.

“This is a topic we often hear about the most from our constituents. While it is a lot of money as we’ve heard today, there is not enough money for everything. We want to cover as much as possible,” she added.

Top image: This map shows sidewalk gaps in City Council Districts 5 and 10. Illustration courtesy/City of San Antonio

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.