Just about anywhere City Councilman Manny Pelaez goes in District 8, traffic is on most people’s minds. And while building new roadways or expanding existing ones may ease the pain, Pelaez believes that San Antonio must invest in data-driven solutions “not to solve its traffic problem, but to manage it.”
Pelaez sat down with Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard on Tuesday night at the University of Texas at San Antonio as part of the the Rivard Report‘s “Conversations with the Council” series.
“There’s no person in District 8 that starts their list of things that are important with anything other than traffic,” said Pelaez, who was elected last year to succeed Ron Nirenberg as District 8’s representative when Nirenberg ran for mayor.
“Then No. 2 is traffic, No. 3 is traffic, and if you get them to stop talking about traffic and get them to talk about something else, it’ll eventually come back to traffic. It is the largest pain point in District 8.”
Pelaez said building new roads is only one solution to a larger, more complex challenge of safely transporting residents to key points such as UTSA, the Medical Center area, USAA, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, The Rim, or The Shops at La Cantera.
“There are no short-term solutions for District 8’s traffic problems,” he said. “You can lay as much asphalt and concrete as you want, you’re not going to build your way out of District 8 or San Antonio’s traffic problems anytime soon.”
Peleaz added that new issues arise from simply building new roads, such as displacing drainage and expanding the amount of impervious cover, which can further affect the environment.
Instead, another partial solution lies in smart traffic management, something Pelaez championed during his Council campaign.
“It’s what we call Smart City and data-driven solutions,” he said. Just last month, Nirenberg announced the creation of a City Council Innovation and Technology Committee, which Pelaez chairs.
Among other things, the committee will explore how the City can incorporate more smart traffic management, where centrally controlled traffic signals and sensors regulate traffic flow citywide in response to demand.
Pelaez said the City plans to use District 8 as a “proving ground for Smart City adaptive traffic management solutions,” although details haven’t been finalized. He added that the Medical Center and Fredericksburg Road area will be a focus for testing traffic management solutions.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in 2017 named Texas a national proving ground to test autonomous, or driverless, vehicles. The Fredericksburg Road corridor is one of five testing areas statewide.
Pelaez said many growing cities have become multimodal, meaning they have expanded beyond the traditional means of public transportation and into things such as light and commuter rail, bus rapid transit, as well as making neighborhoods more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.
“We are woefully behind in enhancing those modalities,” Pelaez said. But District 8 residents are seeing some of these modalities come to fruition.
The City last month began work on the final phase of transportation-related improvements around the Medical Center, including drainage upgrades, new sidewalks, and widening of the intersection of Louis Pasteur Drive and Ewing Halsell Drive.
The City also started work last month on the Floyd Curl Green Street project, which will provide a 10-foot, two-way cycle track in addition to other improvements to make that area more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Pelaez said such infrastructure improvements around the increasingly congested South Texas Medical Center should have happened years ago.
“I’m sad that I’m excited that this is finally happening in 2018,” he added. The City also is exploring the possibility of a “dockless” bikeshare pilot program.
One member of the audience, Marie Hoffman, asked how the City should prioritize what type of solutions can be used to improve mobility for residents and make neighborhoods more walkable. “It’s about convenience,” she said.
Pelaez said a key part is having more residents communicate with their local elected representatives and exchange ideas.
“There needs to be a critical mass of people out there who say, ‘We want to do …,’” he said. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil at City Hall.”
Rivard also asked Pelaez about his first year as an elected official, a year that has seen the Council address hot-button issues such as a performance bonus for City Manager Sheryl Sculley. The bonus, given for her job performance in 2017, is in addition to her $450,000 base salary.
At the time of the Council vote on the performance bonus last month, Pelaez complimented Sculley’s ability to quickly respond to issues that arise.
On Tuesday, Peleaz said when it comes time to renegotiate the city manager’s salary, he hopes all City leaders will welcome “a real difficult conversation” on how the City measuresits highest-paid contract employee’s performance.
Another challenge that Pelaez and his colleagues have faced this year is the stalled negotiations between the City and firefighters union regarding a new collective bargaining agreement.
In December, the Texas Supreme Court asked the City and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association to submit full briefs on the lawsuit the City filed against a so-called evergreen clause in the last labor agreement that expired in 2014.
A labor attorney by trade, Pelaez said he remains optimistic that both sides will return to the negotiating table and consider a few compromises in order to decide on a new pact.
Pelaez shared with the audience how President Lyndon Johnson sought to convince Democratic senators from the South to back his proposed Civil Rights Act. If that can happen, Pelaez explained, the City and firefighters union can look past their differences and arrive at a new agreement.
“I think sometimes we’re so focused on this universe at City Hall that we could always use a dose of perspective,” he said.
“This is not the biggest problem we’ll ever face. It’s a big problem for the people impacted by this, but when adults come to the table and negotiate in good faith, you’ll see a deal get done.”