Too many cars for too few roads
Web Posted: 04/30/2007 01:37 AM CDT
Ruben Cerna has found that living on the city's suburban fringes isn't always what it's cracked up to be.
The attraction is easy enough to understand: big homes at affordable prices, no city taxes, and a slice of country with grazing horses and tree-lined roads. Throw in a school district with a sterling reputation and the lure can be irresistible.
And that's the problem — a lot of people, maybe too many, want a piece of the fairy tale.
Cerna bought his two-story American dream six years ago near Shaenfield Road just west of Loop 1604, where the latest land rush in Bexar County is now in full swing.
He said he left his old neighborhood because it was getting too crowded and run-down. Now, as farms around him are sold, woodlands get scraped bare and houses are packed in faster than he imagined, Cerna has made another choice.
His fight right now, waged between 12-hour days as a truck driver and spending time with his wife and two children, is to get more traffic signals installed on the two-lane country roads that have been drafted for use as suburban arterials.
"It's just cars all day long," said Cerna, 47. "I just don't understand why they won't go ahead and put traffic lights out here. It's not like it would be a wasted expense."
Cerna's right. More traffic lights are needed or soon will be. But those fixes won't stop waves of city traffic from spilling onto rural roads already clogged with cars.
Culebra and Potranco roads west of Loop 1604 were each built to handle about 12,000 cars a day. The most recent state traffic counts show that Culebra gets more than 20,000 daily and Potranco almost 18,000.
Some motorists go out of their way to avoid gridlock.
One recent morning, Bexar County sheriff's Lt. Dennis Casillas was stopped in traffic on Potranco Road when he looked out the window of his patrol vehicle and saw a car buzzing by on the shoulder.
A lot of people do it, the driver told the lieutenant when he pulled her over. Traffic is so bad that parents often resort to the shoulder to get their kids to school on time. She was taking her son to a school just around the corner.
When Cerna bought his home, he joined about 14,000 people spread over some 80 square miles outside Loop 1604 between Potranco and Bandera roads in the county, according to the Alamo Area Council of Governments.
The major streets connecting these people to the rest of San Antonio compose a thin network of two-lane roads with no curbs, sidewalks or bicycle lanes. Years ago, that was enough.
"Everything was just a country road," said William Houghton, 71, who bought 2 acres near Potranco and Talley roads in 1985 and built his own house. "It was beautiful. You know Camelot? I would say it was like Camelot."
But Houghton's Camelot is under siege. Population is booming in that quadrant of the county, and it's expected to grow seven times over by 2030, to more than 98,000 residents. Areas south of U.S. 90 and north of Interstate 10 are growing nearly as quickly.
With the growth comes traffic. But expanding the roads, maybe at best doubling them over the next 25 years, will leave them way behind.
"History tells you the truth," said Joe Aceves, Bexar County's infrastructure director and a former city public works director. "Historically, infrastructure falls pretty far behind the development that occurs."
It's not that nobody's trying:
County taxpayers are footing $17 million in bonds to build four-lane Wiseman Boulevard from Loop 1604 to Talley Road, which is about to open, and widen Shaenfield and Braun roads to four lanes, with work starting this year.
The Texas Department of Transportation has $34 million worth of projects under way to widen Culebra Road to four lanes, finish adding a northbound lane to Loop 1604 and add left-turn lanes from 1604 to Guilbeau Road.
Developers are building four-lane roads in their subdivisions, of which Alamo Ranch Parkway and Alamo Parkway will eventually cut through, and they paid half of the $8.2 million for Wiseman Boulevard.
VIA Metropolitan Transit plans to extend bus service on Culebra Road next year and add express buses on Texas 151 to Loop 1604 in two years. The agency also may start running buses on 1604 past Potranco Road and Military Drive in a few years.
It won't be enough, and the city's record $550 million bond package going before voters May 12 doesn't touch this area, which is mostly outside city limits.
Traffic is "going to continue to grow," said Clay Smith, TxDOT's engineer in charge of planning in San Antonio. "Travel times will increase."
More projects are planned for the Northwest Side, but funds are short. Officials are discussing what they dub "innovative financing."
TxDOT, local governments and developers might team up to raise $68 million to widen Potranco Road to four lanes and build an 8-mile, two-lane section of Texas 211. By selling bonds, the work could get done at least a decade sooner.
Another plan actually uses an old idea: toll roads. In a few years, motorists could be asked to cough up tolls to help pay for adding four to six express lanes to 1604, bypassing yawning backups at stoplights.
That still won't be enough.
"No, we're still short," Smith said. "We'll still see congestion increasing."
The numbers are just too daunting.
As many as 60,000 homes could be built outside Loop 1604 between Potranco and Bandera roads in just 15 to 20 years, say Northside Independent School District officials, who keep close tabs on developers so they can plan where new schools will go.
Families in each household make about 10 trips a day, according to city planners. And people living in far-flung sprawling areas tend to drive farther and more often.
"It's not going to be fun out here in the near future," Houghton said as he sprinkled water on his front yard's bald patches. "I'm not bitter, but I just want to know where all these people are coming from that they're building the houses for."
He stopped and looked up, letting water spurt aimlessly from the hose.
"Where are they coming from?" he said.
The dire picture for the Northwest Side isn't new. Most of the city and growing areas in the county suffer traffic congestion or crumbling streets, and there are few easy solutions.
When planners recently put their pencils to paper to come up with a magic number for making most traffic problems disappear in Bexar County by 2030, they settled on a whopping $19 billion deficit. That hole is more than twice what's actually budgeted for projects.
"We've got three choices," said Scott Ericksen, spokesman for the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees how federal gas tax dollars are spent here. "Find more money, change the way we travel, or get very congested."
The $300 million for streets, bridges and sidewalks in the city's bond proposal — more than half the funds — is well behind the area's wave of growth and offers just a fraction of the relief that's needed.
"We're trying our best to catch up," said Tom Wendorf, city public works director. "We're just not as nimble, say, as a developer."
The city tries to stay ahead of developers by requiring them to build networks of through streets for their subdivisions, including those in extraterritorial areas, so that less traffic is funneled to existing highways.
A map dictating where those thoroughfares will go covers the explosive growth west of Loop 1604, which the city will probably inherit someday. But that ideal grid, even with roads widened as planned, won't be a cure-all for the traffic coming there.
"It's going to be like any other city," said Emil Moncivias, the city's planning director. "It's going to be busy."
And as tapped-out as taxpayers are, they may soon pay a larger share for such streets. A Texas Supreme Court ruling in 2004 and a state law passed the next year forbids cities from forcing developers to build more than needed for the traffic their subdivisions spawn.
San Antonio is kicking off a study to spell out how to pinpoint where traffic comes from and divvy up the related road costs. County officials went ahead and split expenses with developers for Wiseman Boulevard so that four lanes would be built instead of two.
"It's probably going to become more commonplace," said Aceves, who worked the deal for Wiseman Boulevard.
Also, the plan can be and often is changed by the City Council at the behest of developers. A former city planner says such changes fueled notorious traffic quagmires around Bandera Road, U.S. 281 and other areas.
"It's completely screwed up," said Dave Pasley, a former city planning director and special projects coordinator. "I fought a lot of battles and lost most of them over the years."
There's still hope for the mostly virgin tracts west of Loop 1604, for which the thoroughfare plan remains largely intact, Pasley said.
There are glaring gaps, including no extension of FM 1560 and Texas 211 northward, no extension of Braun Road to Texas 211, and a lack of roads around Helotes, Grey Forest and areas east, he said. But overall, the far Northwest Side could fare better than the North Side.
"If there is follow-through and implementation of these plans," he said. "A big if."
Those are the kind of ifs that Brenda Ward is counting on.
As a mother, she worries about the safety of her two teens as they travel the narrow roads to Taft High School.
As principal of Ward Elementary on Shaenfield Road — it's not named after her — she worries about the safety of her 1,200 students. In August, Jefferson Middle School will open next door and bring 1,500 students.
"We understood it was a growing area when we moved out here," she said. "We see them plowing down the cornfields and the cute little farms, and the houses and model homes are all going up out here."
If only traffic and safety officials could keep up.
"To pre-plan those things, knowing the houses are coming," she said. "Until it's a problem and so many people die, it doesn't seem to happen."
This is yet another reason its time the San Antonio City Council starts thinking up, instead of out! The last time I went back to San Antonio, the traffic in Stone Oak (where my parents live) was HORRENDOUS.... at 6:30pm it took me 25 minutes to get from Hardy Oak Blvd to the 1604....I for one will be looking to buy as close to downtown or as close to where ever I work as possible when I get out of college. When I was going to UTSA, I got tired of sitting in traffic on the 1604 every stinkin morning!