Cars travel along U.S. Highway 281 near the bridge on Stadium Drive at rush hour.
An updated version of the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan slashes the specific commitment to having only carbon-free vehicles on San Antonio roads by 2050. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

City Council members asked City staff to focus more on alternative modes of transportation and traffic mitigation measures when it applies for federal money designed to help address road congestion and air quality.

Art Reinhardt, interim deputy director of the City’s Transportation & Capital Improvements (TCI) Department, briefed the City Council’s Transportation Committee on funding priorities and the rainbow crosswalk pilot program at a meeting Monday.

Reinhardt said TCI expects $60 million will be made available to the Bexar County area through a federal program that gives money to state and local governments that do not meet federal air quality standards.

The City will submit an application to the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO), which will distribute the federal money. This money is separate from the recent Volkswagen settlement funds, of which the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality allocated nearly $61.6 million to San Antonio.

TCI proposed putting nine projects and programs in its application to AAMPO, including supporting the City’s new alternative transportation program and funding an update to the 2011 Bicycle Master Plan. The projects add up to $61.45 million in total construction costs.

Projects that add capacity to roadways are not eligible for the federal funding, Reinhardt said. Reinhardt said he anticipates the City will receive around $15 million of the total available funding.

“Sixty million dollars is the anticipated amount for all of Bexar County, including City of San Antonio, the Texas Department of Transportation, Bexar County, and VIA [Metropolitan Transit], and other independent school districts will be able to submit [their own applications for funding],” he said. “[The estimate] is based on experience.”

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said she was concerned by how many of the proposed projects involved road improvements that would help drivers of single-occupancy vehicles rather than alternatives such as public transit.

“It seems to me we can still do better, to spread it out a little bit,” she said. “[Most] of this would still support single-occupancy vehicles, and it seems like what we’ve been talking about more recently is better use of public transit, public spaces to provide alternatives, and it looks like we have a potential fund we can use and we should be very aggressive toward that.”

Gonzales, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) pushed to prioritize protected bike lanes. Saldaña, who chairs the transportation committee, said one of the only two votes he ever regretting casting as a councilman was when he supported removing bike lanes from South Flores because it bolstered the idea that the city’s infrastructure would be driven by vehicles.

“I’m not afraid of the idea of doubling down on the concept of protected bike lanes,” he said. “We can show receipts on where the city has been investing in the last 50 years – highway, expanding roadways. If we want to show receipts for what we’ve done for bike lanes, it’s much less than that.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) demurred over the effectiveness of protected bike lanes. Pelaez said he wants data to inform City Council’s decision-making.

“Is there data that says if we build this, this is how much less emission we will be experiencing?” Pelaez asked. “I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if anyone knows the answer. At the end of the day, I don’t know what I don’t know and I’d like to close that gap.”

Reinhardt said the City has already determined there’s no way to build its way out of congestion, and must turn to other modes of transportation. It’s also difficult to use data to see how effective bike lanes will be toward reducing congestion since San Antonio needs to improve its bike lane network, he said.

“A dedicated bike facility can move more people in an hour than in a traffic lane,” Reinhardt said. “What we don’t see is people using the facilities we do have, because there are so few of them.”

Once TCI can update the Bicycle Master Plan, it can decide where to build more bike lanes, Reinhardt said. Either way, there will be a shift from cars to alternative modes of transportation once San Antonians hit the congestion “pain point,” he said.

“We know that pain point is coming, and we don’t want to say in 20 years, ‘Gee whiz, wish we did this differently,’” Reinhardt said.

City staff recommended that Reinhardt return to the committee on March 18 with an updated federal funding application after hearing committee members’ input. The application must be approved by City Council at its March 21 meeting, before it is due to AAMPO on April 1.

Colorful crosswalks

Reinhardt also updated the committee on the rainbow-themed crosswalk pilot program. The crosswalks on North Main Street and East Evergreen Avenue were installed last June before the Pride parade, and have been declared a success, he said. TCI monitored the crosswalks for six months and saw that no vandalism had occurred, no extra maintenance was required from the City, and there were no accidents that could be traced back to the existence of the colorful crosswalks.

“There was a very high occurrence of people taking pictures on the crosswalk,” Reinhardt said. He pointed to photos on an accompanying slideshow. “Here you can see someone sitting on the crosswalk while the intersection was open to traffic, which was very concerning,” he said. “However, after the first couple of weeks – 2 weeks to be exact – that behavior significantly tapered.”

The royalty in the Official Gay Universe Pageant System approach the rainbow crosswalk.
Royalty in the Official Gay Universe Pageant System approach the rainbow crosswalk. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Because of that program’s success, TCI will now look at formalizing a framework for other groups to submit applications and designs for other types of community crosswalks, Reinhardt said. The rainbow crosswalk was funded in part by Pride San Antonio, which raised nearly $20,000 to paint the street red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. A standard crosswalk costs around $12,600, and the City provided that amount for the project.

TCI will prepare guidelines for community crosswalks in the next month or so, Reinhardt said. Recommended requirements include finding a community sponsor to pay for upkeep beyond standard maintenance of crosswalks and ensuring designs don’t confuse drivers or pedestrians.

“They need to be at a signalized section or designated pedestrian crossing,” Reinhardt said. “We don’t want them at uncontrolled location because we know people will want to take pictures.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.