Henry Cisneros, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Jane Macon, and Judge Nelson Wolff attended the Rivard Report editorial meeting presenting the SAConnect plan for transportation throughout San Antonio.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and ConnectSA tri-chairs Jane Macon and former Mayor Henry Cisneros participate in a discussion about San Antonio's mobility future in the offices of the Rivard Report. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While San Antonio International Airport was bustling with arriving and departing travelers, area highways were congested with holiday shoppers, and employers were closing early, the Rivard Report opened its offices to city leaders Friday morning.

It was the first such meeting in our new offices at 126 Gonzales St. in St. Paul Square as we continue to introduce the community to our expanded base of operations on the city’s near East Side. The nonprofit Rivard Report‘s board of directors held its first meeting here earlier in the month, and days later, we held an opening of the Gonzales Gallery within our space for 150 visitors, showcasing the works of three local artists.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, former Mayor Henry Cisneros, and attorney Jane Macon gathered in the Rivard Report‘s first-floor conference room Friday to discuss the city’s mobility future, a proposed framework that offers a road map to planned expansion of multiple transportation modes.

ConnectSA also aims to mobilize San Antonians to alter course from our present path to worsening growing congestion and air quality, and the negative impacts street and highway gridlock have on productivity, education outcomes, and quality of life.

City planners expect San Antonio to grow by more than 1 million new residents by 2040 and perhaps half as many vehicles and enough homes and apartments to house them.  The framework that local officials discussed with Rivard Report journalists seeks to anticipate that growth and effectively manage its impact via improved mobility.

Cisneros and Macon are two of ConnectSA’s tri-chairs. The third, VIA Chair Hope Andrade, was unable to attend the meeting for family reasons. The three leaders have proven my earlier writing wrong when I stated that tri-chairs over the age of 60 were not the ideal choices to envision future transportation in 21st century San Antonio.

In fact, the proposed framework is remarkably detailed and well-structured given the eight-month timeframe the ConnectSA team has had to study best transportation systems and practices in 31 other U.S. metro areas – and to adapt what they learned to San Antonio’s sprawling geography, anticipated growth, funding realities, and political culture.

By the latter, I will quote Cisneros, whose ConnectSA introductory mantra includes the words “no light rail, no tolls,” a frank recognition of what voters are unwilling to support even as all parts of the city clamor for mobility solutions.

Read the complete, 25-page ConnectSA proposed framework here.

A page from the ConnectSA proposed framework lists mobility program goals by 2025. It also identifies potential programs in three time periods through 2040. Credit: Courtesy / ConnectSA

Long-term projects require political consensus and continuity, and as three mayors, past and present, discussed the plan Friday, there was a sense that San Antonio is finally coming to terms with the reality that its growth, livability, and future competitiveness depend on enhanced mobility. Cisneros, Wolff, and Nirenberg represent four decades of public service leadership in the city.

Their agreement to work together with VIA Metropolitan Transit, the Texas Department of Transportation, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and other stakeholders signals a level of cohesiveness and sense of purpose that has been lacking until now. A challenge that seemed too politically difficult, too expensive, too complex, and too hard to sell to voters caused years to go by even as other cities tackled and overcame the same issues.

A failed light rail election in 2000 and a collapsed streetcar plan in 2014 have cast a shadow over mobility planning and transportation investment in San Antonio, but 2019 promises to be the year when city leaders and voters get the opportunity to end that period of political and public immobility.

This column is not about the details of ConnectSA, its funding options, its timeline, or its many inevitable challenges. There will be ample time for citizens to participate in the process in the months ahead. Few people I’ve spoken with have had the opportunity to review the framework released last week.

The coming months will bring a series of public forums, workshops, and town halls, a process that will reach into all 10 City Council districts. The Rivard Report will add ConnectSA to our 2019 civic engagement calendar and certainly make the developing plan a central part of our second annual San Antonio CityFest next year.

ConnectSA leaders hope to take public input and feedback and produce a more complete framework by May, which happens to coincide with the May 4 city elections. Work on a final plan will continue with additional public meetings and possibly a ballot initiative in November, when city leaders will ask voters to approve the plan and its initial funding mechanisms.

That’s an ambitious timeline. Everything from city politics to a recession could slow the pace, but the ConnectSA team is eager to move forward in the new year.

Mobility issues are defined differently by people, depending on where they live and work. For some inner-city residents, it’s the historic lack of sidewalks. For bus riders, it’s the need for greater bus frequency. For suburban residents and workers, it’s expressway congestion on the city’s main arteries. For urban core residents, it’s how to move downtown without a car — on foot, bicycle, or scooter.

All of us believe our personal mobility issues are the most important ones and should be addressed as soon as possible. In my most recent column on the subject, I expressed doubt that the ConnectSA plan would be for all of us. Friday’s gathering with city leaders suggests I was wrong. Now it’s up to them to develop the plan’s first five-year phase and sell it. Then it will be up to the voters.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.