Building Blacktop: Why is San Antonio Chasing Highway Funds When Its Climate Plan Calls for Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions?

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Last March, as Mayor Ron Nirenberg worked to win support for the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, or CAAP, he also testified before Congress, asking for funding to expand the congested I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin.

“We believe that investing in infrastructure should be Congress’ top priority this year,” he told the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, according to the Express-News.

But environmentalists and transportation experts argue the mayor can’t have it both ways.

After all, when council adopted the CAAP last fall, it signed San Antonio on to the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. What’s more, Nirenberg serves on the steering committee of Climate Mayors, a group of 400-plus municipal leaders who pledged to uphold the international pact abandoned by the Trump administration.

“There is no world in which we can address climate change without getting people to change the way they travel, and that includes giving more options for them to get out of their cars and off highways,” said Matthew Casale, transportation campaign director at U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (USPIRG), which releases an annual list of the country’s priciest highway infrastructure proposals.

While the Alamo City didn’t land on USPIRG’s 2019 list, Casale points out that if municipalities are serious about slashing greenhouse gas emissions, they must quit looking to the federal and state governments to fund new highway construction.

Indeed, a recent study published in the scientific journal Nature argues that the only guaranteed path to meeting the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal is to stop all new highway projects.

Yes, all of them.

And it doesn’t appear SA’s ready to take that plunge. Last summer, Texas approved a 10-year plan that included $1 billion in funding for Bexar County infrastructure projects, including expansions not just of I-35 but also Loop 1604, I-10 and U.S. Highway 90.

But Nirenberg says addressing climate change and highway congestion can’t be viewed as an either-or proposition. After all, U.S. Census data suggests Bexar County stands to gain 1.1 million new residents by 2040, and that’s going to mean plenty more drivers on the blacktop.

Roughly 161,000 cars traversed the Loop 1604-Interstate 10 interchange in 2017, an amount that doubled in less than two decades, the mayor pointed out in an interview with the Current. And as congestion increases in gridlocked areas, so do emissions from idling vehicles.

“Roadways have to be a part of the mix,” Nirenberg said. “It’s unrealistic to expect people to completely abandon their cars, even as we develop a modern multimodal transportation system.”

The system to which Nirenberg is referring, of course, is ConnectSA, a $2.7 billion plan he and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff are championing to turbocharge VIA and give residents more alternatives to driving. In November, voters will consider diverting a one-eighth-cent sales tax from the popular Edwards Aquifer Protection Program to fund the transit component of the plan — a separate debate worthy of an article of its own.

Keeping Constituents Happy

While critics say some sort of rethinking of public transit is a necessary step, they dispute the mayor’s argument that new highway lanes will cure gridlock.
They cite a phenomenon called “induced demand,” which says once you build new lanes, drivers fill them and congestion returns. In one widely cited example, Los Angeles poured more than $1 billion into widening I-405, only to have travel times worsen over the next five years.

Urban planners have been talking about induced demand for decades. However, experts say the concept hasn’t exactly gained traction with municipal leaders, who frequently see infrastructure projects as a way to keep constituents, developers and the construction industry happy.

Even so, automobiles simply must be part of the conversation when it comes to addressing climate change, CAAP advocates say.

Although much public debate around the climate plan has centered around emissions from sources such as CPS Energy’s coal burning plants, transportation accounted for 38% of San Antonio’s 2016 greenhouse gas emissions, according to city data. That puts it second only behind building energy.

“In my conversations with Mayor Nirenberg, I think that he believes in climate change and that we’ve got to do something about it,” said Bill Barker, a CAAP advocate whose lengthy career in transportation has included time as VIA Metropolitan Transit’s director of planning. “But there are some difficult conflicts of interests when you start talking about highway infrastructure.”

Smarter Growth

The discussion on infrastructure spending comes as Gov. Greg Abbott warned last week in a Rotary Club of San Antonio speech that Texas is experiencing what may be its “last major buildout of roads.” Ride sharing platforms and denser urban living will reduce residents’ reliance on vehicles, curbing the need for state spending, he said.

But history suggests the state is unlikely to turn on a dime.

After all, amendments to Texas’ constitution authorized the state to borrow $18 billion over the course of a decade for highway projects. And it also racked up $29 billion in highway debt by the end of 2015 — or 30 times more than at the close of 2000, according to USPIRG research.

Environmental advocates point out that they’re not oblivious to the growth Nirenberg wants to address, nor are they advocating the city and county sit on their hands. But, instead of slapping new lanes onto highways, they argue, local leaders should bring public transit deeper into neighborhoods, encourage telecommuting and create opportunities for people to work and shop closer to home.

“We need to grow smarter,” Barker said.

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