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The Say-Town Lowdown

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Concerned about slow fire-department response times, especially in newer neighborhoods? Frightened by talk of putting tolls on lots of major highways around San Antonio?

What you need is a little more understanding and some context. So like most professors, I’ll give you some reading assignments. But to make it easy on you, there will be a brief summary here, and no final test.

In a story on March 11, “Waiting for the Sirens,” Express-News reporters detailed the slow fire-department response to calls on San Antonio’s edges, particularly areas annexed in recent years. The cause? Location: 31 stations inside Loop 410 (with many near downtown), compared to 18 for the much larger area outside the Loop.

This delayed response time is certainly news. But it’s not new. Your first reading assignment — Robert Lineberry’s Equality and Urban Policy, published in 1977. Lineberry, then a professor at UT Austin, sought to explain how and where the City locates its public facilities, including libraries, parks, and fire stations. Our fire stations back then were closest to older, lower-income neighborhoods concentrated in the most-developed parts of the city. Lineberry’s final conclusion: “Citizens in `neighborhoods` scoring high on median family income clearly are at a greater distance from fire houses than those scoring low on the income dimension.”

Lineberry attributes the “close-in” concentration of fire stations to professional norms and bureaucratic “decision-rules.” But the reality is that San Antonio built a great many of its fire stations in the 1920s, and then become frugal about building new ones. From 1955 to 1977, the City invested just $3.4 million in new fire stations, or about 1 percent of our total capital spending. For years, new bond issues were kept at a size small enough to promise the public “no increase in the property-tax rate.” Translated, this meant that our public investments weren’t shaped by what was needed, but by what City Council decided was politically expedient. So newly developed and annexed parts of the city had to manage with just a few new fire stations, no new parks, and the occasional new branch library.

San Antonio’s history and its pattern of supporting constant outlying growth and development mean that the long-term burden of paying for new fire stations and more fire companies, improved streets and storm drainage, and new parks and libraries inevitably grows as well.

Beyond its public cost, the pattern of the city’s growth also has directly affected how we live and work. It’s not just new homes that are turning up on the hillsides of far north San Antonio. It’s also major employment centers, like USAA, Valero, and Harcourt Assessment. More are coming.

Our fire stations reflect decisions and locations from 50 and 75 years ago in large measure because our contemporary leaders refuse to grapple with the full costs and implications of the city’s growth. Instead we fuel even more outward expansion with new water and sewer lines, and bond proposals (and tax abatements) that support outlying development beyond 1604.

For those of you interested in local toll roads, your reading might start with the City’s “Federal Legislative Program for the 109th Congress,” available at Sanantonio.gov. On page 21, you’ll find the request for $30 million in federal dollars to fund the expansion of Bulverde Road from 1604 to Evans — precisely the same $30-million project that’s part of the May bond package. The rationale for expanding Bulverde is quite clear:

Bulverde Road is an essential roadway that creates a shortcut eastward from US 281 to Loop 1604. Therefore, it become `sic` an alternate corridor to the proposed toll road projects on US 281 and Loop 1604. This roadway will be crucial during toll-road construction as motorists will rely heavily on Bulverde Road to reach their employment destinations, drop off children at school, visit commercial businesses and access their residences. After toll-road completion, motorists attempting to avoid the toll road are expected to increase traffic on this roadway significantly.

You see, we need a wider Bulverde because we need toll roads on 281 and 1604. And then Bulverde will see even more traffic from those unwilling to pay a toll. For your next reading assignment, let’s try Anthony Downs’s Still Stuck in Traffic.

Just as more growth doesn’t mean better services, toll roads aren’t the answer to traffic congestion. They just mean more growth.

 

Heywood Sanders is a public-policy professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


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