The City of San Antonio’s $1.2 billion 2022 bond sounds like a lot of money, and it is a record sum of public investment, but it’s far less than would be needed to address the total capital investment needs in one of the country’s fastest growing cities.

San Antonio pays a high price for its ever-sprawling growth, now totaling 384 square miles, according to city manager Erik Walsh.

Some calculations put the area even higher: In one memorable map created by RentCafe, San Antonio’s land mass is seen as large enough to encompass the island of Manhattan and the cities of San Francisco, Boston and Pittsburgh — with room to spare.

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Mapping San Antonio via RentCafe

All that development, with new subdivisions and new retail and new office centers to go with it, creates continuing demand for new streets, sidewalks, drainage and flood control infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the historic inner city — including downtown and the many neighborhoods that ring the urban core — has its own long-standing needs, with many areas suffering from decades of public underinvestment.

All together, city leaders say they would need more than $6 billion to address all of the city’s infrastructure needs.

Early voting in the May 7 bond election begins Monday and continues through May 3.

For those who plan on voting in the midterm primary runoff elections, that is a separate date entirely — on May 24, with early voting May 16-20.

Yes, voters will go to the polls twice in the next month. I’ll look at local runoff races in a column in the coming weeks, but today’s message is simple: voting in bond elections is just as important as voting to choose elected leaders, yet if the past is any guide, we will be fortunate if 1 in 10 registered voters bother to cast their vote.

In the case of the 2022 bond, the future trajectory of San Antonio and many quality-of-life issues are at stake.

The city’s 2022 bond is divided into six different propositions for voters to consider, and serves as the culmination of a citizen-led effort that spanned months of volunteer work, public meetings and working with city staff to make the difficult decisions to prioritize projects totaling $1.2 billion. This was not an easy task for the more than 160 citizens who served on the five bond committees.

Capital needs keep rising, and inflation and supply chain issues, coupled with a shortage of skilled workers, means future construction projects will cost more and take longer to complete. The 2017 bond, for comparison, totaled $850 million, the 2012 bond totaled $596 million and the 2007 bond totaled $550 million. That first cycle and those that followed reflect the modern fiscal measures put in place by former city manager Sheryl Sculley that continue today under Walsh.

The city’s ability to borrow $1.2 billion reflects the city’s growing tax base and its ability service the bond debt without raising taxes. While the tax base is growing and interest rates are rising, the city’s AAA credit ratings from two agencies and a AA+ rating from a third agency mean San Antonio can borrow money at the lowest possible interest rates.

I see the growing bond investment over the last three bond cycles as a measure of the city’s growth and needs, as well as local government’s inability to control and regulate sprawl. The successful management of these bond cycles by city staff is a measure of good stewardship, even amid the pandemic. The outcome of bond elections is ultimately seen as a measure of citizen confidence in local leaders.

City staff have used some of San Antonio’s $327 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to augment the $1.2 billion and allow more capital projects to be undertaken without sacrificing, for example, the small percentage of bond funding dedicated to public art.

The majority of bond spending funds streets, sidewalks, drainage and flood control. Significant funds are dedicated to public safety, and for the first time in this bond cycle, investing in affordable housing. Parks, libraries and other cultural institutions also get a small percentage of each bond. Too small, in my view.

Each area of investment requires its own place on the ballot, so voters will have to vote on each of the six propositions. Voters who want to drill down into the categories to review individual projects or search for projects in their council districts can access that information on the city’s website. Just click on the individual bond categories and then scroll down to Final Project List.

San Antonio is a different city now than it was five years ago, and the same will be said five years from now. Public investment in the future city begins with voters’ decisions now.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.