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Mayor’s transit plan has promise

December 28, 2018

Bexar County is in the midst of unprecedented growth. San Antonio was the fastest growing major city in the nation last year, and it’s been estimated there will be 1 million additional residents in Bexar County by 2040.

That tidal wave of growth isn’t some future event. It’s happening now. All of these additional residents will need to get to work and school. They will need to run errands and move from point A to point B. Employers will gauge commute times and alternatives for people to get out of their vehicles. If you think traffic is bad on U.S. 281 or I-10 between San Antonio and Boerne or along Loop 1604 on the North Side, then just imagine what it will be like if we do nothing.

This is the principle reason transit must be the local policy priority of the present and future — and why we wholeheartedly embrace the transit plan put forth by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and backed by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Some will want something bolder. Some will fight any investment in transit. But the initial plan put forth by ConnectSA, the nonprofit Nirenberg created to study the issue, is a reasonable and realistic plan that addresses transit challenges and meets San Antonio voters where they are.

Henry Cisneros, — one of the ConnectSA cochairs and a former mayor of San Antonio who also served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development — has noted this plan has no pie-in-the-sky projects. There are no toll roads, and there is no rail, two issues San Antonio voters have rejected in the past. But there is something for everyone — an embrace of technology, sidewalk improvements, bike and scooter lanes, more buses, road expansion and rapid transit lines. And it’s a plan that recognizes San Antonio’s fiscal capacity.

It’s also a plan that technically would not have to go to voters since there is no rail, but Nirenberg has, wisely, said it will go to voters in either 2019 or 2020.

What voters would approve will be narrowed down in the coming months through public meetings and surveys, but the initial plan outlines 25 initiatives by 2025. A few of these initiatives stand out. First and foremost, is a mass transit line that would run from Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side to San Antonio International Airport, down San Pedro to Downtown and then to the far South Side, following the Mission Reach to Brooks City Base.

This would be on dedicated lanes — meaning it would separate from existing traffic — and will feature what is essentially a trackless train. Picture passenger rail cars on rubber tires. It’s significantly cheaper than light rail, flexible and serves the same purpose.

There would also be 40 more miles of bike/scooter lanes, and a universal app to pay for transit so riders could move seamlessly from a scooter to an Uber to the trackless train.

In 2030, the next mass transit line would run from downtown to the west side, and I-10 would be expanded.

Each five-year segment would cost about $1.3 billion or so.

To pay for these transit improvements, the plan outlines 10 funding sources, most of which involve existing funding sources. Cisneros has said some combination of five will likely need to be implemented.

Some are basic: leveraging state and federal funds or folding transit projects into future city and county bond programs. Some are common sense: Redirecting the city of San Antonio’s Advanced Transportation District tax dollars to these transit projects. Some might be controversial: Redirecting sales tax dollars from Edwards Aquifer Protection, or instituting a city transit fee.

An important note to supporters of aquifer protection: Nirenberg has said he will not support moving aquifer protection dollars to transit without a new funding source to assure water security.

There is time to debate the merits of these funding ideas, and others. But the natural starting point to this discussion is recognizing that doing nothing is untenable.

The region has to keep moving, and this plan is the right starting point.

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