City Council members were unanimous in praising the substantial impact the $850 million 2017 Municipal Bond will have on San Antonio, but some expressed concerns about how the money will be spent and spread out over the 10 council districts.
Funding for Broadway Street improvements, the Hardberger Park land bridge, and public art was questioned Wednesday as council members considered, for the first time in the same room, the list of 170 recommended infrastructure projects determined by five citizen committees. While some, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, lauded investment in transformative projects, other members were wary of the price tags of some of the projects and wondered if that money could be better spent on smaller, localized projects in their districts.
“Unfortunately in decades past, we didn’t always have decision makers who ensured that infrastructure investment was made in every part of our city, and so we’re all trying to make up for that,” Taylor said, noting that the 2007 and 2012 bonds have allowed for significant catch-up. “But as the 21st century unfolds, we have to balance the needs of our neighborhoods with the type of investments that lead to catalytic projects that benefit the entire city through making San Antonio more attractive and economically competitive.”
The 2017 bond list is more than one year in the making, and City Council will vote on the program next Thursday, Jan. 19. Voters will make the ultimate decision by voting on the estimated six bond propositions on May 6.
“Why is so much of the money going to citywide projects when we really need help in the districts?” Northside Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) asked, quoting the concerns of his residents. He then asked City staff, “Can we shave off any more of the citywide projects?”
Gallagher characterized the $43 million Broadway corridor improvements as a “nice to have” citywide project, while his district has plenty of “need to have” projects.
The budgets can’t be reduced without reducing the size of the projects, City Manager Sheryl Sculley explained. “In our estimation, at this point in time we would be reducing scope if we are to reduce those budgets.”
That’s not necessarily beneficial to each district, said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). “Every project is a citywide project.”
Nirenberg cautioned his colleagues against being “lulled into a sense of security in our bond program. … It’s easy for us to talk about shaving a little bit here and there from these big projects, but built into these cost estimates are predictions of cost increases over the years.”
The far-Northwest side Councilman is challenging Taylor in the mayoral race, yet another decision voters will face on May 6.
Those actual costs will depend on the strength or weakness of the economy and the markets, said Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department.
Taylor cautioned against “just spreading the peanut butter” evenly across the city.
“[Catalytic projects contribute to the city’s ability to] create jobs and have an outstanding quality of life that will continue to attract and retain people and institutions that contribute to our strong economy,” she said. “Without that, we will have diminished quality of life for everyone – whether or not their street is fixed or their sidewalk is fixed.”
Council reviewed several changes representatives from districts 1, 2, 5, 7, and 10 made to their recommended bond projects, which were produced by citizen committees. They mostly shifted money between projects, and in some cases took money to create new projects.
For instance, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who represents much of downtown, proposed taking $8 million from various District 1 street projects to fund improvements to Fredericksburg Road. The money would be used to make the street, which was identified as a key corridor in the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan, a multimodal, complete street from North Flores Street to West Woodlawn Avenue. If approved, four other street projects would take a hit. Reductions could range from $1 million to $4 million.
Councilman Cris Medina (D7) proposed taking $5 million from a drainage project to fund two multi-generational centers in his northwest district.
He suggested that City staff try to whittle down to the final dollar each and every project in a similar way “so that at the end of the day we have something to present to the community that the voters of the entire city are going to support.”
A perception that downtown is getting a disproportionate piece of the bond pie has been creeping around the community, Medina added.
“Citywide is not synonymous with downtown,” Sculley said. “Only 20% of the bond program is recommended for streets, drainage, and parks in downtown.”
About 70%, or $594 million of the $850 million bond, will be spent on basic infrastructure needs like streets, bridges, drainage, and sidewalks across the city.
About a decade ago, City Council decided to move away from the “divide by 10” approach in order to fund bigger projects that benefit the whole city, she said. “The Medical Center is not (District 8)’s Medical Center, it services all of Bexar County.”
Northside Councilman Joe Krier (D9) agreed that some of the major projects, especially Broadway, should be looked at again for cost savings and more private-sector money to leverage the public investment. He also suggested that all of the public art funding be redirected toward infrastructure projects.
“I just don’t get it,” he said of public art.
The City is required by a controversial ordinance to reserve 1% of all capital projects for public art.
Krier defended the Hardberger Park land bridge after Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) questioned the City’s potential $13 million investment. At least $10 million in private funds will be raised by the Hardberger Park Conservancy to complete the $23 million land bridge, Krier noted, praising the bond’s ability to leverage private and public dollars.
“The thing that I do not like about the land bridge is that it’s not in my district,” said Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who represents much of the Southwest Side. “The thing that I do like about the land bridge is that it’s in my city.”