Progress can be a dirty word. Places like North St. Mary’s Street, North New Braunfels Avenue, Broadway, Fredericksburg Road, Main Avenue and the mind-boggling construction zone formerly known as downtown are fantastic examples of what happens when we don’t consider the costs of too much progress all at once.
It is normal for bond projects to disrupt some lives in part — a small cost for progress. However, our bond projects are so numerous and widespread that they are disrupting businesses and residents at their core. City Hall and the voters didn’t get the memo: some progress is too much to bear. The over-ambitious politics of City Hall and the uncritical voting habits of San Antonians are causing businesses, workers and residents to be disrupted beyond reason.
The news on this situation is nearly constant. Businesses were still reeling from the pandemic when “the orange cones showed up.” Some projects are turning residents against businesses and customers against residents, businesses around these projects don’t think they will survive to see the day these projects are done, residents are being detoured every which way and workers are at risk of losing their jobs. To ease the pain, the city has offered $400,000 — among other benefits — to help businesses, solutions that could aid a single row of businesses, but probably not a city of business. Either way, business owners are saying that it’s too little too late.
What caused this problem? Public officials blame the pandemic and supply chain issues. This is true, but it isn’t the whole truth. When we look at the sheer number of bond projects related to streets, bridges and sidewalks in the 2017-2022 bond, our self-inflicted problems become obvious. In 2017, voters approved 64 bond projects related to streets, bridges and sidewalks — that is 23 more projects than they approved in 2012. This means that we aren’t just dealing with the fallout from the pandemic or urban growing pains. Rather, the city bit off more than businesses and residents can chew, and people are suffering for it.
Again, our local government has violated the “double bottom line principle,” which I have written about in a prior commentary. The principle goes that there are two bottom lines for organizations, governments, businesses or individuals. The first bottom line is for the numbers, the second bottom line is for the social impacts, and they both require balance. In San Antonio, we’re pretty good at balancing the numbers. We’re not so good at balancing the social impacts.
In San Antonio, local leaders tend to forget the second bottom line unless they are reminded, and we the voters can lack the sophistication to remember it, too. After all, we vote for these things, often with strong majorities. What reason does City Hall have to practice restraint when the voters are so permissive? Basically, City Hall shows the voters a pre-filled check, and voters sign on the dotted line without much scrutiny. The same can be said for local journalists, who let Mayor Ron Nirenberg claim things like “no new taxes” (hear it at 1 minute and 20 seconds) without challenging the statement as cringeworthy doublespeak. “No new taxes” doesn’t mean that there are no new costs, such as the costs for businesses that lose their customers and the workers who lose their incomes.
Looking forward, the city needs to come up with a plan for the businesses and residents that will be affected by the 2022 bond, which contains 61 projects for streets, bridges and sidewalks. Such a plan includes central leadership, communication strategies, assistance for minority communities and pre-agreed-upon mitigation procedures. If not, we can expect a bad decade for local businesses. Also, journalists and voters need to be more critical of the bond elections. We need to vote for fewer bond projects so that we can benefit from healthy amounts of progress. Yes, the City of San Antonio can afford its bonds without raising taxes, and yes, we can count on voters to always approve the bonds. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.