Most City Council members said Tuesday that the proposed budget for infrastructure and transportation improvements for fiscal year 2018 could provide equity among all 10 Council districts.

City officials have used the term “equity lens” frequently in the new budget planning cycle. Using equity as a guiding principle would mean allocating more resources to the districts with the most need instead of equally across the city.

But more than one Council member called for a wider debate about the mechanics of the equity lens. There could be a better way to determine how to find the areas with the most need for infrastructure maintenance, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6)  said, reiterating his concerns with the process behind applying the equity lens.

Tuesday’s budget work session was the first of nine scheduled for the Council throughout the next month, leading up to the adoption of the new budget on Sept. 14. Residents may speak on the proposed budget through any of the six open houses hosted by the City and online at The next open house is set for the city’s Eastside from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Copernicus Community Center, 5003 Lord Road.

The proposed Transportation and Capital Improvement (TCI) budget of $103.8 million would increase street maintenance from $64 million to $99 million.

The additional funding comes from savings in the City’s two previous bond packages. The baseline $64 million would be allocated across the 10 Council districts using the City’s traditional “rough proportionality” method – each gets about the same in relation to other investments.

But the additional $35 million would go mainly to Council Districts 1, 2, 3, and 10 because, on average, roads in those districts scored the lowest in the City’s Pavement Condition Index (PCI). District 2, which includes the historically neglected Eastside, would receive the largest boost:

  • District 2: $15.6 million
  • District 1: $8.6 million
  • District 10: $8.1 million
  • District 3: $3 million

The City assesses the condition of its streets like school grades, with A-F marks. About 10% of all streets received an F, which means they are in need of reconstruction and reclamation, TCI Director Mike Frisbie told Council during his overview of the budget on Tuesday.

About 25% of streets graded A require minimal maintenance, such as crack-sealing, and 30% of B streets would need micro-surfacing slurry seal.

Frisbie said 23% of F streets are in District 2 and another 19% are in District 1. Frisbie explained it’s a challenge to maintain roads in the inner-city districts because of their age and soil type.

“It’s much more difficult to get [a street in the urban core] to keep up no matter what the design is,” he said.

Frisbie said it would take $800 million to address all of the City’s F streets. But, he added, only a few slated projects would be aimed at those; most would have to be addressed over time with larger-scale improvement projects.

“You don’t want to focus on your F streets,” he said. The City plans to fix about 80,000 potholes over the next year, answering a common infrastructure request from residents citywide.

Brockhouse said that when the City uses the equity lens methodology to bring some districts’ average street score up to par with others, some neighborhoods in need are getting left out. His district, District 6, has a PCI score of 77.79 – above the City average of 70 – and is slated to receive $6 million total in street maintenance in FY 2018.

“This Council has not discussed what ‘equity lens’ means,” he said.

Brockhouse recently attended a meeting of homeowner and neighborhood association leaders in his district. He said the way the City plans to distribute street maintenance funds has little support among his constituents.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D7).
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) asks the City Manager a question during a Council meeting. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

He suggested a more efficient way of determining an area’s infrastructure needs, using various metrics, and dividing funds more equally citywide.

“We have to find a better way to allocate our resources,” he said.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) agreed with Brockhouse. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) agreed on the need to debate the definition of equity lens, but added that this method deserves a chance.

“We’re experimenting and moving away from dividing [funding] by 10 and allocating in a way that nobody gets left behind by the outcome,” she said.

Council has the ability to allocate street maintenance funds how it chooses, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, but this method is an opportunity to support overdue improvements in some older parts of town.

“We’re playing a lot of catch-up,” she added.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he was pleased that the new budget could help to better address basic infrastructure needs, adding “that’s what we get the most calls about” from residents.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said using a needs-based approach in street maintenance funding, along with rough proportionality, will help many neighborhoods in her district.

(From left) Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) listen to a presentation about equity.
(From left) Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) listen to a presentation about equity on Aug. 9, 2017. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Sometimes when a Southside road is fixed or a length of sidewalk is improved, Viagran said, the quality of life goes up instantly for residents who rely on that road or sidewalk.

“I think we’re doing it at the right time in the right manner,” she said. “The people in these neighborhoods won’t get abandoned.”

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) would like to see more guidance from design professionals who can help the City make sure its infrastructure improvements last longer.

“I think you’ll hear design professionals also tell you there needs to be an approach that mirrors what we’re saying in regard to the equity lens,” he said. “This is a never-ending remodeling project. The City was built a long time ago, and it keeps growing. We’re having to keep coming back and respond to things that were legacy-driven.”

VIA to Receive Funding Boost

If the City were to approve a transfer of funding, VIA Metropolitan Transit plans to use that money over two years to improve frequency service.
If the City approves a transfer of funding, VIA Metropolitan Transit plans to use that money over two years to improve frequency of service. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The new budget includes a proposed transfer of City’s general funds to VIA to provide increased frequency along key routes and corridors.

In 2018, a $4.3 million infusion would enable VIA to provide 30-minute service along nine routes and corridors, and 12-minute service along another four routes and corridors.

In 2019, another $10 million infusion would permit VIA to improve to 12-minute service along two more routes/corridors on the Westside and Southside. The transfer of City funds would be offset by Advanced Transportation District revenue dedicated to transportation.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) has long advocated the City providing some kind of financial assistance to VIA to help the mass transit agency improve its service, especially for people who rely heavily on the bus.

“After experiencing what it feels like to spend hours getting to and from work on a bus, I’m excited we’re finally bringing relief to the bus riding community,” he said later

“Our support of VIA tells me that our City is prepared to expand access and opportunity to the most vulnerable in our community, not only in rhetoric but in real dollars.”

“While VIA has been a good steward of its existing resources, we must create a transit system that provides an attractive option to current residents and will serve an estimated population increase of 1 million new residents over the next two decades. A system that provides more frequent route service and makes public transit choices more efficient and attractive requires additional investment,” stated VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt in a news release last week.

“The City’s budget proposal to provide additional resources for safe and reliable public transportation choices is a sign of our strong, shared commitment to the communities we serve,” Arndt stated. “We are thankful for the efforts of the entire City Council and the City Manager for making local investment in public transportation a priority for our City.”

VIA has already begun plans to expand its Primo service, which currently operates only on Fredericksburg Road, to Southwest Military Drive and Zarzamora Road.

Brockhouse suggested that VIA officials should inform its riders who will be impacted by the planned service improvements resulting from the reallocated funds.

“I’m very excited about the success that’ll come with the extra cash,” he said.

Sidewalks, Striping, and Advanced Traffic Management

The proposed FY 2018 budget includes an increase for pavement markings, or striping, from about $1 million to $5.8 million. That would shrink the citywide cycle of improvements from 21 years to five years.

The budget would provide $21 million to fix existing sidewalks and fill current sidewalk gaps around town. This is in addition to the $78 million for sidewalks included in the 2017 Municipal Bond. The City will prioritize sidewalk upgrades near schools, health care facilities, community spaces, bus stops, and other spots where pedestrian traffic is typically heavy.

If approved, the budget would put $2.4 million toward the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) to enhance the City’s traffic management.

As part of its effort to become a Smart City, the City is trying a program called SATRIP (San Antonio Traveler Real-Time Information Portal). SATRIP is designed to improve traffic management for the City and keep motorists, mass transit commuters, and pedestrians updated on road conditions.

The first phase of SATRIP involves installing sensors and cameras along Military Drive and along Blanco Road, monitoring traffic congestion, and ensuring pedestrian safety. If it detects a pedestrian crossing a busy road against a green light for passing cars, the system is able to switch the green light to red.

SATRIP will also be integrated with systems for high-water detection and public safety dispatchers. Police and fire departments will receive automated alerts for traffic incidents.

This real-time data can then be shared with travelers via an app. SATRIP is being funded by a $2.8 million allocation that’s carried over from fiscal year 2017.

The budget will allocate $1 million for other traffic calming measures, which can vary depending on the needs of a specific neighborhood and traffic evaluations. The money will cover the purchase of another six radar speed trailers.

Pedestrian Fatality Rate Dropping

FY 2018 is the fourth of a five-year plan for school pedestrian safety improvements. The budget also has $1 million for pedestrian safety enhancements as part of the Vision Zero program.

The City has reported a total of 66 pedestrian roadway fatalities through the first seven months of 2017. There were 193 such fatalities in all of 2016, 113 of which happened by the end of July.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who has championed the Vision Zero initiative to reduce the number of roadway fatalities, was encouraged by these numbers.

“I think this is phenomenal and I hope we can hold this rate for the rest of the year,” she added.

The budget includes $250,000 for a pilot alley repair program, which will concentrate on improving drainage in non-service alleys. Frisbie said 83% of the City’s alleys are non-service. Nearly a quarter of the City’s alleys lie in District 1.

FY 2018 will be the third year of a five-year plan that increases the stormwater utility fee. The City will address a backlog of capital stormwater projects, such as erosion around Thousand Oaks and drainage in the West Summit Avenue alley.

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Edmond Ortiz

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