Gov. Greg Abbott not only has grabbed Broadway back from the citizens of San Antonio, he also attempted to change its name.
In an official statement, the governor’s spokeswoman referred to the street as “SL 368,” (abbreviation for State Loop, a title that makes no sense for a street that starts downtown and heads nine miles directly north to its termination by the airport.)
It is an inelegant appellation. Who would ever sing, “Give my regards to SL 368″?
It won’t hold. San Antonians will continue to call it Broadway. Voters overwhelmingly approved a bond proposition that included money to beautify the street and make it more fitting for the exciting urban corridor it is well on the way to becoming, flanked as it is by museums, parks, high-design new office buildings and thousands of popular new apartment units.
What was once a seedy pass-through exit from downtown is now a thriving urban neighborhood combining a huge influx of residents and a plethora of commercial and cultural destinations attracting visitors from all over the city and beyond.
A bit of background for the current controversy: Back in 2013, the Texas Transportation Commission was so strapped for funds that it drew national derision by announcing it was converting 83 miles of paved roads in south and west Texas to gravel roads. The reason: It couldn’t afford to fill the potholes caught by trucks supplying fracking operations.
The late Molly Ivins’ description of Texas as “Mississippi with good roads” appeared to be outdated.
The transportation commission was running a massive annual deficit. It was so desperate that not only was it de-paving country roads, but it also planned to dump miles of urban “state highways” on cities to get them off the state maintenance rolls.
An embarrassed transportation commission killed its “high-end unpaved road” program. Meanwhile, resistance from Texas cities persuaded it to make the conversion of “highways” to urban streets maintained by cities was made voluntary.
San Antonio volunteered. What city leaders want is in essence to take the six-lane street down to four lanes, converting the recovered space into wider sidewalks, bike lanes and shade-producing trees. The purpose is to continue providing an efficient corridor to Alamo Heights and points north while better serving the thousands of residents and visitors attracted to what is fast becoming San Antonio’s most ambitiously urban neighborhood.
But the governor says NO! He can do so because, as we have recently learned, while the Texas Transportation Commission appeared supportive of the city’s Broadway plan over the years, the agreement to transfer the street had never been formally finalized.
Why am I hanging the responsibility on Abbott rather than on the Texas Transportation Commission and its chairman, prominent San Antonio businessman Bruce Bugg?
After all, Bugg sounded firm in voting against his home city: “I feel strongly that if this commission does not take this action today, and capacity is reduced from three lanes in each direction to two lanes … we would allow an action that would be in direct conflict with our stated policy to provide congestion relief for the state of Texas, specifically in San Antonio.”
People who know Bugg, however, know that he cares about San Antonio and is heavily involved in civic affairs. Not only did he help make the magnificent Tobin Center for the Performing Arts happen as head of the Tobin Foundation, but he was one of three leaders who created Community Labs, the highly efficient local operation that brought COVID-19 testing to San Antonio at a price that enabled local governments to provide it free to thousands.
As a banker with offices in Pearl complex at the heart of the new Broadway, he has presumably been aware of the city’s bond issue, including $42 million for the Broadway plan, but also of many millions of private-sector investments in the area in anticipation of the changes.
If Bugg were truly concerned about the impact of the Broadway project on state highways, he would not have sat by without expressing his concerns for the past five years as his city very publicly passed the bond issue and began spending millions on the project.
No, this is an Abbott action — and Bugg, who was appointed to head the transportation commission by Abbot, is playing the good soldier.
Abbott’s spokeswoman last week did not attempt to hide the governor’s role in the decision. “Gov. Abbott’s priority is to alleviate congestion on our state highway system,” she said.
It’s a bogus argument. The notion that going from six lanes to four on just 2.1 miles of an infrequently packed inner-city street is going to affect congestion on state highways is silly. This is not about traffic control for Abbott.
So what is it about?
Some have suggested that he’s doing it because some contributors from Alamo Heights or Terrell Hills have complained about the Broadway project adding to their commute times. They’re wrong.
Two of Abbott’s most generous San Antonio contributors — NuStar Chairman Bill Greehey and Rackspace founder Graham Weston — together have given him more than $1 million since he first campaigned for governor. Both joined a group of local luminaries signing a letter to Abbott and Bugg last week strongly arguing in favor of the Broadway redevelopment plan.
Abbott’s move is a minor skirmish in what has become the Texas Republican war on cities and local governments. Abbott has been a general in this war. He has used his pandemic powers to ban local mandates that were based on the advice of epidemiologists and other experts. He has led efforts to keep cities from making pandemic-inspired efforts to make voting safer and easier.
Abbott has pushed legislation limiting the taxing authority of cities and limiting their power to control their police budgets. He has also teamed with Republican legislators in efforts to prohibit local governments from hiring lobbyists to promote their interests, or even to pay dues to such organizations as the Texas League of Cities and the Texas Association of School Boards.
The dynamic is simple: The cities are Democratic, so the traditional conservative theory that power should be placed with the government closest to the people is obsolete.
Abbott isn’t alone. This has become part of Republican orthodoxy. In a secretly recorded session with a right-wing lobbyist in 2019, then-Speaker of the Texas House Dennis Bonnen said, “In this office and in the conference room on that end, any mayor or county judge that was dumb ass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.”
Bonnen would resign after the scandal caused by that recording (though his real political sin was not his position on cities but his urging the lobbyist to help unseat 10 fellow Republicans). But also caught on the recording was one of his top lieutenants, Dustin Burrows, who was then chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee and remains powerful as chairman of the Calendars Committee.
Burrows outlined a plan that included “stealing” — his word — sales tax revenue from cities ($626 million from San Antonio) in order to lower school property taxes.
“We hate cities and counties,” Burrows told the lobbyist.
So Abbott is acting within the mainstream of his party. Still, overruling a city’s publicly vetted plan to modify two miles of an urban street is a move of astounding pettiness, even for Abbott.