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Paving the Way

Monday, December 18, 2017
Aroosa Ajani and Cole Murray use a map

Aroosa Ajani ’18 and Cole Murray ’18 helped city officials find links between demographics and street funding.

Trinity Urban Studies research project on relationship between San Antonio’s demographics and road quality sparks discussion at city level

by Jeremy Gerlach

San Antonio’s streets don’t always make for a smooth ride.

These roads—from Stone Oak Parkway to Zarzamora—have countless cracks and fissures, while the City Council has a limited budget for fixing them all. And if the road conditions seem rocky, watching different city council members debate which districts should get fixed first can seem equally jarring.

Enter “The Demographics of Public Funding in San Antonio,” a Trinity urban studies program study that provides a fresh look at the socioeconomics of street maintenance in the city. Students Aroosa Ajani ’18, Cole Murray ’18, Alyssa Parra ’18, and Claire Rettenmaier ’18, led by urban studies director Christine Drennon, launched the project in 2016 in partnership with the office of then-District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg, now mayor of San Antonio. The report examines the geospatial relationship between income levels, education and ethnicity, and the quality of roads in city council districts across San Antonio, and has already started changing the way some city officials look at infrastructure spending.

“We found some significant inequalities during this research process,” says Murray, an urban studies and political science double major. “While the city might be spending a proportional amount of money on infrastructure in each district, the South, near-West, and East sides have significantly worse roads and need more funding to begin with.”

While this sentiment isn’t new to San Antonio politics, where representatives from districts on the East, West, and South sides of town have long felt their streets have been neglected, the Trinity team’s methodology has made for a fresh viewpoint, Nirenberg says.

“This report was a great primer for me,” says Nirenberg, a ’99 Trinity graduate who partnered with Drennon and the student researchers on the report while he was in the early stages of his mayoral campaign in 2016. “It was the first time I saw, through an analysis of the data, a connection between high poverty areas and poor infrastructure.”

For the project, the team used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to map out socio-economic indicators like poverty level, income, ethnicity, education, and even household language in each council district. The team then compared these maps to similarly constructed district maps of road quality and infrastructure spending and looked for relationships and patterns between these different data sets.

Using this data, the team affirmed that council districts with a higher percentage of their population below the poverty line also had a higher distribution of low-quality roads.

“And as I got out into parts of the community that I hadn’t spent much time in previously,” Nirenberg continues, “I was able to see the report and that inequity come to life.”

GIS mapping, says Ajani, an urban design and business analytics double major, helps the report tell a story that is more visual and accessible than a spreadsheet or data table.

“In San Antonio, there is already a narrative of what is happening with funding for infrastructure,” says Ajani. “For a long time, people here have argued about whether the council should be spending an equal amount on roads in each district. But, as our report shows, equal spending doesn’t make as much sense when there are some districts that just need so much more help with road repair.”

Christine Drennon speaks at desk

The 2016 report is one segment of a larger body of GIS research done by Drennon, who has spent years studying the legal, political and geospatial roots of socioeconomic inequality in San Antonio. Drennon, who presented a portion of this research to the San Antonio City Council at an Aug. 9 briefing session, says one goal of this research is to demonstrate the difference between “equality” and “equity” to policy makers.

For instance, Drennon explains, providing “equal” funding for road improvements in each district might seem fair at face value, but it ignores the fact that some districts’ roads have been historically neglected and need more help to begin with. An “equitable” approach, on the other hand, would mean prioritizing the biggest problems first.

“‘Equality’ just maintains the status quo,” Drennon says. “We need to be asking ourselves, ‘will our entire city grow, or just some of us?’”

Drennon, along with the student researchers, cautions that the 2016 report is not a “silver bullet” for correcting longstanding inequities in the city’s budgeting practices. The project itself does not make specific policy recommendations, nor is there a guarantee that the Mayor’s Office and City Council will adopt more equitable budgeting practices in the future.

But according to  Nirenberg, this type of research is “absolutely” good for the City Council—and all of San Antonio—to see.

“It shaped the way I talked about opportunity and helped inform my vision,” says Nirenberg. “I want to build a San Antonio where all of our residents, no matter where they live, can prosper, and that takes understanding that there have been areas that have suffered from historic underinvestment that need extra support and funding.”

The team is also quick to point out that the report isn’t meant to villainize or victimize any part of town.

“This is not us pinning ‘wrongdoing’ on any part of town in particular,” Murray says. “We are just quantifying the experience that so many drivers have across the city; driving from the North Side down to the South Side, you feel like you’re entering a completely different place.”

Aroosa Ajani uses a map projector

For Ajani and Murray’s team, “quantifying the experience” meant spending nearly an entire semester gathering thousands of data points to form the GIS maps. The project pulled information from the City of San Antonio’s Transportation and Capital Improvement Department, the 2010 U.S. Census, and the 2014 American Community Survey, among other sources.

When looking at spending on street maintenance. the report pulled data from San Antonio’s 2012 bond issue. Bonds are funding mechanisms for large packages of city projects, separate from a city’s yearly slate of work, that taxpayers vote on during electoral cycles. Bond projects can include infrastructure that ranges from roads and drainage work to parks and hiking trails. Since San Antonio has a “smaller” budget for yearly projects than other large American cities, Murray says the 2012 bond was the best place to determine San Antonio’s true priorities in terms of infrastructure spending.

Murray hopes this report will pave the way for more data-driven dialogue in the future.

“This report is about bringing awareness to ... these poor road conditions,” Murray said. “And if that helps people start talking about how we can enact some change, then that’s significant.”

Evidence of these conversations is already present in the city’s upcoming budget process. The day after Drennon’s August 2017 presentation to the council, city manager Sheryl Sculley presented a proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, describing it as being constructed through an “equity lens.”

With some modifications, the city passed this $2.7 billion budget in September.

“It’s just really exciting to see that something that started out as a class project could actually help make people’s lives better,” Ajani says. “That’s what urban studies is all about.”

Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity's Brand Journalist, and he experienced his first-ever flat tire in 2013 thanks to a pothole on Blanco Road in San Antonio. Email him at jgerlach [at] trinity.edu or find him on Twitter @JT_Gerlach.