Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who chairs the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Monday that he’s doubtful that rail between Austin and San Antonio will be built. But he thinks that something similar to rail may be constructed.

Wolff said he doesn’t know what that transportation mode might look like, but he’s confident technology will provide a lower-cost solution to connecting the two cities. His comments came during a panel discussion at the 2019 Texas Mobility Summit, a conference that aims to develop collaborative solutions for the state’s mobility challenges.

Rail is simply too costly a way to move people around, Wolff said.

“If I want to build, let’s say, a rail from the airport to downtown, how much does that cost?” Wolff asked. “If you look nationally, it costs $80 [million] to $100 million per mile. If I build traditional highway infrastructure, $10 million per mile. Logic tells me I’d rather spend $10 million per mile than $100 million per mile.”

“I am optimistic and very hopeful – it’s one of the reasons why we planned I-35 the way we planned it – that technology will help us do things that are rail-like. I am pessimistic about traditional rail because it is so cost-prohibitive.”

Wolff joined two other elected officials and a leader from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) for a panel focusing on how Texas navigates transportation solutions, moderated by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard.

James Bass, executive director of TxDOT, said that he doesn’t consider highways to be the long-term solution for Texas’s transportation future, but the department is limited in what it can accomplish.

“The saying goes, when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail,” he said. “All of our funding goes toward highways, so guess what we do? We build highways.”

Wolff said he doesn’t see an immediate solution to reprioritizing TxDOT funding if the money is restricted to highway construction and maintenance. Long-term transportation planners also have to keep in mind how to move the most people and goods most efficiently, he added.

Continuing to focus on highways will hurt Texas in the long run, Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) argued. As a member of the Texas House Transportation Committee during her freshman term, Minjarez said conversation revolved around highways while mass transit was pushed to the side.

“Our population is going to double by 2050,” she said. “Texas prides itself on being a business-friendly state. We have a lot of people moving here, but in no way have we planned on how we resolve congestion, how we deal with all the people moving in. … It takes some political will.”

One of the major projects that TxDOT is working on in San Antonio is the widening of part of Loop 1604 to be a 10-lane expressway, a project that carries a price tag of $1 billion. The agency also plans to expand Interstate 35 and start construction in 2021. Though Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) acknowledged that she prioritizes multimodal transportation options, she recognizes that many of these types of projects were planned decades ago.

“While I’m opposed to many of those large highway expansion projects, I do understand that they’re many, many years in the making,” she said. “They were designed in the early ’80s when we were continuing to do a lot of connections in urban and suburban areas.”

Highway expansions outside the city core threaten the city’s air quality, the Edwards Aquifer, and encourages sprawl, Gonzales said, while San Antonio is already designed to be a dense urban area that allows for multimodal transportation. She said she recognized that connecting the larger region may be important, but not at the expense of the city core’s transportation options.

“Around the country, we are viewed as a region: the San Antonio-Austin region,” she said. “And if that’s important for sustainability and economy, we can plan for that as well. But for the urban area, we don’t have to do very much different.”

Gonzales added that she was disappointed by how much Texans have accepted road fatalities as a fact of life. Bass – and later on, TxDOT Chairman Bruce Bugg – shared TxDOT’s goal with its “Road to Zero” campaign, which aims to halve road fatalities by 2035 and end them entirely by 2050. Last year, 3,648 people died on Texas roads, Bass said, and in instances where victims could have been wearing a seat belt, 40 percent were not.

“We know the vast majority of these issues are driver-related, for those fatalities,” Bass said. “But we know what those behaviors are: distracted driving, speeding, driving under the influence. We know we should be designing around it.”

“It requires all of us to do our part. I’m a big believer that it’s a shared responsibility. The department has a part, but so do we as drivers.”

As far as redirecting TxDOT’s mission away from highway construction to other modes of transportation, that directive must come from the Texas Legislature – and from Texans, Bass said.

“We are your Department of Transportation,” Bass said. “We take our charge from the Legislature. A former CFO used to say in 1991 [the year TxDOT was created], ‘They changed our name, we’re just waiting for our funding to catch up.’ And that’s where we are – we’re waiting for our funding to catch up to more than highways. But that’s not for TxDOT to decide. That’s for TxDOT to implement the charge we’re given by the Legislature.”

Speakers on another Monday panel discussing policy developments in Texas transportation also touched on congestion and ways cities can look toward technology to manage congestion and connect Texans to the places they want to go. Darran Anderson, director of strategy and innovation at TxDOT, said the problem at the heart of congestion is a quality-of-life issue. 

“What are we trying to do to make mobility and living better in this century and not just looking back at 20th century [solutions]?” he asked.

City of San Antonio Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard

That’s where the idea of a smart city comes in, Anderson explained; smart cities use data and technology to improve their services and quality of life for residents. Brian Dillard, San Antonio’s chief innovation officer, started with the City as its smart city administrator. He pointed out that San Antonio struggles with homelessness and a high rate of poverty, and his department needs to consider that when crafting solutions.

“We’re one of the most economically segregated cities in the US, and that’s a challenge for me when I’m asking for smart people on staff to figure out how to do … transit,” Dillard said.

In order to improve transit connectivity in San Antonio, his staff has to work closely with other City departments, Dillard said.

“I have to show dollar for dollar how better transit can impact that young lady who has two kids, is a single parent, and is working two jobs,” he said. “How am I gotta get them from where they live, to where they’re dropping off their kids, to where they work?”

Working toward transit solutions comes from partnerships with universities, from the private sector, and other entities, Dillard said. He referenced programs that help San Antonians who need assistance with their water, energy, and housing.

“If we all have the same customer base, why are we not going at this together?” he asked

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.