ConnectSA, the nonprofit formed to sell Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s proposed multimodal transportation plan to San Antonio voters, will likely rely on young, tech-savvy allies – despite the fact that its leadership is distinctly old guard.
Nirenberg sees a major transportation revamp as essential if the city is to accommodate the million new residents it’s predicted to gain by 2040. But voters have balked at such projects in the past. Since 2000, they’ve twice rejected plans that sought to ease gridlock by adding light rail to the mix.
The difference this time, observers say, may depend on how well the mayor, who ran as a progressive, can leverage younger residents’ enthusiasm for the environment, technology and urban living. The vote is expected in 2019.
“This time around, the conversation is truly on multimodal transportation instead of strictly pushing one mode, light rail,” said Brian Dillard, 34, a cybersecurity consultant and an East Side community leader who recently joined VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board. “I saw one report on this say the mayor was ‘future-proofing’ the city, and that’s the way I like to think about it.”
Dillard, who rides the bus and a bike daily, said the increased congestion and the boom of area bedroom communities have brought a sense of urgency that residents may not have had during previous referendums.
But if Nirenberg wants to sway younger residents, his choices to tri-chair ConnectSA don’t seem to be ideal. Former Mayor Henry Cisneros, attorney Jane Macon and former Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade are all seasoned political insiders of the old-school variety.
The hope, County Judge Nelson Wolff said, is that the 20- to 25-member ConnectSA board itself can be stocked with new faces, many from the tech industry. After all, that demographic was instrumental in the fight to allow ride-share firms Lyft and Uber to operate here.
“We really need to round out that committee for this to be a success,” Wolff said.
In a sign of what Wolff has in mind, the city and county have five new VIA board appointments, including Dillard, the East Side activist. All are young(-ish) and most boast a tech background.
So far, just what ConnectSA will put forward to voters is sketchy because the group is charged with researching the best way to build a state-of-the-art multimodal system. But there are two recurring themes. One, that it would make use of dedicated bus lanes so VIA’s fleet can whisk riders along without interference from other traffic. Two, that light rail is probably out of the picture.
But bus lanes alone don’t constitute a true multimodal rethink of the city’s transit system. Experts said an effective multimodal solution would likely need to employ a variety of new technologies, such increased recharge sites for electric cars, rideshare-style mobile apps for hailing transit and, yes, driverless vehicles.
Younger residents, especially those comfortable with urban living, are likely to be the earliest adopters of those new ideas, said Chris Nelder, mobility manager for Rocky Mountain Institute, a renewable energy think tank.
“A lot of young people didn’t grow up with the default, preprogrammed assumption that everyone’s a driver,” he said. “If you look at millennials in places like San Francisco, they’ve penciled this stuff out and decided it doesn’t make financial sense to drive all the time.”
However, millennials alone don’t wield enough votes to make those ideas reality. And if the city’s more conservative elements had conniptions over light rail, one can only imagine their response to talk of driverless vehicles and motorized electric bikes.
That’s why multimodal proponents must persuade a wide variety of residents — from the disabled community and users of traditional mass transit to suburban families – that more transit choices would make their lives easier, said Susan Shaheen, co-director of U.C. Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
“We need to re-brand public transit as part of this effort,” new VIA board member Dillard said. “We need to figure out how to tell them, ‘Hey, public transit can be a sexy option.’”
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