I spent a good deal of time this week poring over spreadsheets built by city staffers that list 250 proposed capital improvement projects totaling $2,902,802,519. That’s down from a previous list shared with City Council that contained 398 proposed projects.
The projects range in cost from $200 million needed to build the remaining 45 miles of the 130-mile Howard Peak Greenways Trails system down to $700,000 to cover repairs to the nonprofit Esperanza Peace and Justice Center facilities on the West Side.
Meanwhile, city officials have announced plans for a record $1.2 billion bond for the five-year cycle that begins in 2022. That means about 60% of the projects identified by city staff or requested by outside agencies and community partners will get kicked to the curb.
Staff will present its recommended “shortlist” list to City Council at Wednesday’s B session, which also is the deadline for the mayor and council members to submit the names of citizens selected to serve on the citizen bond committees. Once activated, those committees will conduct public hearings and meet through the end of the year.
Their degree of influence on the process is debatable.
$1.2 billion, it turns out, isn’t that much money for a city growing and sprawling at a record rate. This time around, there are tens of millions of dollars in unspent stimulus funds in city coffers, and the prospect of more federal funding if an infrastructure bill gets passed by Congress.
Bexar County also has hundreds of millions of dollars in capital improvement funds and uncommitted stimulus funds. Readers who want to know what city and county leaders are planning to do with those funds should join the virtual San Antonio CityFest panel I will moderate on Wednesday, Oct. 13. City Manager Erik Walsh and Judge Nelson Wolff will share their plans for spending.
CityFest’s virtual programming on Oct. 13 and 15 is free and open to the public, but registration is required.
Wolff announced Wednesday that he is bringing his long public service career to a close when he completes his current term 15 months from now. With so much funding in play, something local officials say they are unlikely to ever experience again, his last year in office will be a significant one.
Sprawl is incredibly expensive, especially for a City Council trying to apply an equity lens to the historically neglected inner city and its minority dominant population. That means finding funding to make up for decades of disinvestment and economic segregation.
City staff faces a lot of competing interests, on the council and city hall.
The city’s Public Works Department, charged with mitigating floods and addressing other hazards, has identified 96 drainage projects at a cost of $670,985,605. That’s only the partial cost of development. The more we pave over the green spaces surrounding the city, the more downstream drainage problems we create, and the more streets, sidewalks, and sewers must be constructed.
Most of the bond money raised in every five-year cycle goes to service traffic created by spreading suburban subdivisions and a vehicle-dominated environment. Police and fire, by my count, are requesting more than $120 million for their expanded networks of substations.
The city has deepened its investments in the urban core for the last three bond cycles now, but it’s never quite enough for the neighborhoods and communities that have been neglected for a century or more. Seven of the 10 City Council members represent significant populations of people living in poverty. Public infrastructure investment in those districts is essential to improving the quality of life for residents and attracting private sector investment. Improvements that lead to job creation are critical.
One initiative Walsh has cited is his intention for the city to invest in the hundreds of rundown buildings it owns and makes available to community groups and nonprofits. Again, this is a project making up for years of past neglect. Staff estimates it will take $60 million to address those renovations and upgrades.
Not all the spending proposals come from inside City Hall. Some of the city’s fastest-growing economic clusters — the South Texas Medical Center, Brooks City Base, Port San Antonio — are seeking tens of millions of dollars each to invest in their campuses, which will contribute to future job growth and enhanced quality of life for those who live and work there. The University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M-San Antonio, and the city’s leading research institutes, submit major funding requests to supplement their own investments and private fundraising campaigns.
Museums, performing arts organizations; park conservancies; complete streets advocates; the San Antonio Zoo, and many other nonprofits also seek public funding to finance capital projects.
These so-called outside groups have asked for a total of $662,204,457 this cycle. I do not envy the staff members who have to take the $2.9 billion list of 250 projects and reduce it to $1.2 billion.
With so many worthy projects, and insufficient funding to even undertake half the projects, is there room for acting with greater imagination and risk? Can we spend less on streets and drainage and more on 21st-century connectivity, both transit and digital?
Last Sunday I urged local officials to move the Bexar County jail complex and enhance Westside connectivity to downtown. That drew a wave of other big-picture ideas from community leaders to create an East-West investment corridor. More on those ideas in my Sunday column.