Analysis San Antonio Bioregion

Loop 1604 Expansion: ‘Induced Travel’ to Deliver More Traffic, Pollution

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Northwest San Antonio: A tale of quarries and cul de sac’s. Image: Google Earth Engine.

For a City struggling to improve public health and reduce climate harms, a growing Loop 1604 comes with serious costs.

Greg Harman

This week, members of the CPS Energy Board of Trustees voted to pull a search committee together to seek out a replacement for outgoing CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams. After a CEO’s report that covered everything but the reasons for her departure, more than three hours in executive session, where conversations are shielded from public view, Board Chair Willis Mackey quickly made a motion to personally take up the search committee process and the mayor seconded.

There was no information about the recruitment process in the meeting packet, just a line on the agenda: “EXECUTIVE SEARCH COMMITTEE ASSIGNMENT.”

Mackey and Board Trustee Janie Gonzalez agreed to lead the process.

While still refusing to commit the utility to the City’s 2030 reduction goals for climate pollution, Gold-Williams is departing with long-anticipated new renewables purchases unfilled and energy reduction programs under attack. As Deceleration pulls together threads on a longer story looking back on key understudied moments in Gold-Williams’s tenure and what is needed to center a truly climate resilient utility in the future, we also note how far our elected leaders and others have allowed concerns around climate inaction at CPS to cool.

But energy generation is “only” half of the city’s climate pollution challenge, right? (OK, 44 percent.) As the world moves its attention to a new round of international climate talks, we wondered about the state of transportation, understood by City planners as responsible for 40 percent of local emissions, the second largest slice needing elimination. Our quick take? Not great.

Fossil-fuel-driven transportation matters when it comes to climate pollution, but it is much more than carbon. Highways change land-use development and fuel more sprawl, they result in displacement of those in the roadway’s path, frequently communities of color, and contribute to additional air-quality degradation. In Bexar County it also means aquifer pollution and, it turns out, more traffic congestion.

Once known as Farm-to-Market Road 1604, the first big expansion of Loop 1604 occurred in the early ’80s. Google’s Earth Engine, which using satellite imagery to assist in the analysis and visualization of land use change over time, offers a view of what has followed.

1604 and Culebra

1604 and I-10

1604 and 281

1604 and 35 (Live Oak)

While highway construction can reduce transportation pressure in the short term, it also creates additional demand. The planning term “induced demand” captures this reality. Writing in Streetsblog USA, a site dedicated to understanding federal transportation policy while advocating for mass transit, bicycling, and the pedestrian community. Angie Schmitt distilled the research:

“Every 1 percent increase in highway capacity, traffic increases 0.29 to 1.1 percent in the long term (about five years out), and up to 0.68 percent in the short term (one or two years). One recent study found a one-to-one relationship between new highway lane capacity and traffic increases.”

So why do we keep building more roads?

“There are fairly established economic interests that don’t want to be challenged by significant changes in the car culture, whether that be car manufacturers, or suburban businesses, or freeway designers and engineers,” Joseph DiMento, a University of California Irvine law professor told Grist in 2019. “It’s easy to talk about changing to renewable fuels, but for a lot of the world, their lifeblood is linked to the existing situation.”

Opportunities to positively transform the transportation sector in San Antonio have never gotten their due. Mayor Nirenberg, faced with the enormity of COVID-19 response, tossed his Connect SA plan for expanded mass transportation networks around the city center. Intended as a sort of “second act” to the adoption of our climate plan, Connect SA’s potential climate benefits were never calculated to see how it would help the community reach its climate goals. Or at least those calculations were never shared.

Meanwhile, sprawl around the massive 95-mile loop continues apace. And while many likely feel stranded in their suburban homes a troubled loop’s-length distant from downtown, TxDOT is not sleeping. They recently launched a $1.4B expansion just now getting underway that adds six more lanes to the current four lanes serving the northern portion of the loop. We calculate 138 miles of additional roadway in the soon-to-be massive 10-laner (but we’re waiting on confirmation from TxDOT).

Here’s TxDOT’s paradisaical vision:

Of course, those lanes may feel good to some when the asphalt is fresh and congestion breaks, but they come with a cost.

A calculator developed by the Rocky Mountain Institute, with assistance from groups like NRDC and the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, notes the disproportionately negative impact of highways on the public health of communities of color, for instance.

1604’s new 138 miles of roadway are expected to “induce” an additional 260 to 390 million vehicle miles to be driven per year. Climate pollution injected into the atmosphere from all those tailpipes ranges from 1.2 to 4.0 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, depending on variables surrounding how fast governments respond to the climate crisis and the automotive industry electrifies.

Depends, that is, on how people choose to organize.

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