The new Chevy Caprice was holding the top spot in U.S. car sales and U.S. Highway 281 had just been expanded on the North Side between the airport and Loop 1604 when city leaders adopted San Antonio’s first major thoroughfare plan.

The plan became the roadmap, literally and figuratively, showing the locations and types of roadways needed to meet the region’s projected growth. But the 1978 guide for all things involving the development of streets, access, public rights-of-way and corridors hardly applies to the San Antonio of today.

It’s past time for a new one, said Tomika Monterville, director of the city’s Transportation Department, briefing members of the City Council’s Transportation and Mobility Committee in April. 

“Our major thoroughfare plan is not a living document,” she said. “It was a place and a point in time, and we need to update it so that we can guide the future of the city and not be here 40 years later and people saying, ‘What do you think they were thinking in 2022?’”

The major thoroughfare plan, one component of the city’s long-range planning document called the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, is used to guide development and mobility. But because it was written in the 1970s, it’s no longer useful or valid in some cases.

In just the last five years, city staffers have made 14 amendments to parts of the plan in order to accommodate new development or requirements, Monterville said. But a more comprehensive overhaul is needed. 

The major thoroughfare plan map shows both roadways that have already been built and others as proposed or planned. It also indicates roadway types that correspond to right-of-way specifications — land given for things like roads, alleys or public transit — outlined in the city’s Unified Development Code. 

One use of the plan is in the case of landowners looking to develop a property next to an existing or planned major thoroughfare. They are required by city code to dedicate a certain amount of land as public right-of-way, the amount determined by what kind of roadway exists or might be needed in the future, and also the size of the proposed development. But the plan isn’t keeping up with the pace of development.

For that reason, piecemeal amendments are made to the map. But the process for city staffers to conduct studies, work with other partners such as the San Antonio Water System, hold public meetings, and make one such edit to the plan can take between four months to a year.

That’s inefficient and costly and doesn’t allow for a holistic look at planning across the city, Monterville said.

“We’ve been looking at it in pockets, and what you do in a pocket is going to reverberate through the system,” she said. A new plan could outline citywide priorities and provide the context staff needs to make decisions about how the city is developing in the 21st century. 

“Development has encroached upon so much of the major thoroughfare plan that we don’t even know what the original goals and priorities were of the city,” she said. “So now we know we have economic development goals, land use goals, sustainability goals and transportation priorities. These are the things to build that new MTP base upon.”

Major thoroughfare planning is emblematic of the growth of suburbia in a postwar era, a period of time between when the interstate highway system was completed and people moved outside the urban core. 

“So it was in the ‘70s and the ‘80s where you had expansions of freeways to address the density and the desired travel pattern and the land-use decisions of the period,” Monterville said. City planners needed a long-term plan to manage how regions grew in order to have the infrastructure that would be needed.

But a lot has changed since in those four decades — in development, flood plains and more. Even the term “thoroughfare,” used by engineers to describe a high-speed highway with heavy traffic, is of a bygone era, she said.

And these days, a major thoroughfare plan needs to consider all the ways in which people move about, the kinds of land uses in the area, protecting the environment, connectivity and even planning for evacuation in the case of disasters. Quality of life for residents is another important consideration. 

But thoroughfare plans are as essential to business and manufacturing centers as residential areas, Monterville said. Without a plan, “we create problems in the future because we haven’t allotted enough right-of-way for developments that come, or conversely, we may allot too much.”

The major thoroughfare plan plays a significant role in attracting new business to San Antonio, said Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, director of the city’s Economic Development Department. 

“Where ‘place’ matters, [businesses] want to be in that kind of community that offers them the quality of life” for recruiting and staffing purposes, she said. “Being able to have various transportation and mobility options is incredibly important for that economic development messaging.”

Manufacturers also need the ability to move people, goods and services in an efficient manner, she said. Having an outdated plan simply is not helpful in determining if those needs can be met.

One example of a major thoroughfare important to current and future economic development in San Antonio is Kelly Parkway, envisioned as a “super-arterial” roadway, or minor expressway similar to Wurzbach Parkway. The roadway would cut across Southwest San Antonio.

A map of San Antonio thoroughfares includes a proposed parkway, highlighted pink, which would cut across the southwest side of the city.
A map of San Antonio thoroughfares includes a proposed parkway, highlighted pink, that would cut across the Southwest Side. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Assistant City Manager Roderick Sanchez told committee members that if the plan is not updated, he worries the city will be faced with the prospect of a development that needs access across a quarry or flood plain, for example, and there are no resources to build the road.

“That’s the big fear — that we back ourselves into a corner or we have no way to get traffic one way or the other,” he said.

While the MTP does not directly impact the city budget, it does significantly influence the city’s development and infrastructure demands, said Monterville, in terms of housing, transportation, land use, stormwater and more.

Monterville made the case for an updated plan ahead of a formal request to add the project to the fiscal year 2023 city budget. 

“The biggest benefit of doing a comprehensive update is looking at the technical capacity” of the Development Services Department, which regulates development and enforces city code, she said of the time-intensive process of working to evaluate land use and coordinating with the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Texas Department of Transportation to implement changes one at a time.

An updated thoroughfare plan would already have present-day and forecasted considerations baked into it, including the city’s current goals and priorities, existing development, other modes of transportation, ecological issues, connectivity and quality of life.

She estimated the cost for a comprehensive plan update would run between $750,000 and $1.2 million, based on what similar cities have experienced. Alternatively, it would cost an estimated $250,000 for outside consultants to help with one amendment to the plan such as the one reflecting rights-of-way needed in the high-growth Kelly Parkway region.

“I think what we’re going to find ourselves doing is spending a lot more money to respond to developer requests when we could have been proactive and actually lead the development to the network that we can support financially in terms of our bond program,” Monterville said. 

“It’s going to be a guide to us in terms of investing in infrastructure and resiliency.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.