A lifelong resident and city director reveals how San Antonio can upgrade its infrastructure to become more sustainable and equal

Frank Ramirez
Frank Ramirez.

  • Frank Ramirez is a third-generation San Antonian and a member of City Council in District 7.
  • As director of land use, constituent services, and infrastructure, his goal is to improve the city.
  • He wants to keep using an equity lens, invest in public transport, and improve its trails.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

When you live in San Antonio, Texas, you see someone you know just about everywhere you go. That’s what lifelong resident Frank Ramirez said he loves about the city.

“It’s the biggest little city out there,” Ramirez, 27, told Insider. “I think it’s one of the friendliest cities in Texas, if not the entire nation. From all the places I’ve been, nothing is like San Antonio. Nothing ever will be. It’s home.”

Ramirez is a third-generation San Antonian who grew up on the south side of the city and moved away only to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in government. He said he always wanted to return home to make a difference.

Now, he works with the San Antonio City Council in District 7 – which covers the city’s northwest area – as director of land use, constituent services, and infrastructure.

“I get to learn a little bit more about the criteria that the city uses to prioritize where they put specific types of infrastructure and how to implement it,” he said.

Here’s a look at what Ramirez considers most important for San Antonio as it adapts to a growing population.

Using an equity lens to distribute projects and funds will help eliminate infrastructure disparities

San Antonio has been investing in infrastructure, including recently expanding broadband internet access to students and debuting a smart-streetlight project. But Ramirez said there’s still work to do.

“Infrastructurally, San Antonio is not as good as it could be quite yet,” he said. “But we have really good city leadership that’s paving the way for us to catch up and to be the best that we can be.”

Historically, Ramirez said expansion and commerce have been centered downtown and on the north side, while the south, east, and west sides of San Antonio have been underfunded and are home to marginalized populations. Those areas of town had “some of the largest sidewalk gaps in the city” and deteriorated streets, he added.

In 2017, San Antonio began prioritizing funding and infrastructure projects using an “equity lens.” The budget-equity tool is designed to consider racial and economic equity in the budgeting process, account for the impact of decisions made, and ensure that all programs and projects help reduce disparities.

“Instead of equally providing the same amount of money to districts, we started looking at other criteria, like Census tracts, Sidewalk Labs, the average score of these streets in specific districts,” Ramirez said.

The city’s also working to select more diverse contractors and businesses, such as minority and women-owned companies, to perform the work on these projects.

Investing in public transportation is necessary to solve traffic issues

San Antonio is among the top 10 largest cities in the US, and it’s growing fast. Ramirez said traffic is getting worse and the city needs better transportation infrastructure.

“The prevailing issue is that San Antonio has a traffic issue, not as bad as LA or Austin or any other large city, but it’s there and it’s a compounding detriment because we don’t have a robust public transportation system,” he said.

More transportation alternatives for people who don’t own vehicles would make the city more equitable, Ramirez said. San Antonio’s mass-transit agency VIA Metropolitan Transit does well with its existing infrastructure, he added, but he believes more investment is needed.

A light-rail system is something Ramirez said he would love to see in San Antonio someday.

“It would be the biggest game-changer,” he said. “Not only intracity travel but also intercity travel. Going from the south side of San Antonio to the medical center in a matter of five to 10 minutes, as opposed to 30 to 40 minutes.”

In September 2020, the federal government approved a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston that would transport passengers in 90 minutes, but San Antonio wasn’t included in the route. A train line between San Antonio and Austin has been studied since the 1980s, and local experts hope the idea might be revived if the new Dallas-to-Houston line is successful.

Biking and walking trail improvements are needed to integrate transportation and recreation

One of Ramirez’s favorite infrastructure projects in San Antonio is the newly improved Mission Trail, a biking and hiking trail connecting five historic missions: the Alamo, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.

Investments created shared bike paths that increased the amount of foot and bike traffic that could travel on the trail, which runs through a “significant part of the city’s history,” Ramirez said.

“That was one of the coolest improvements that I’ve seen in my lifetime because I walk and bike there as often as I can, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” he added. “It’s a perfect example of how you can integrate safe transportation and recreation at the same time.”

Another favorite is the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System, which is a growing network of trails that now encompasses about 80 miles throughout San Antonio.

“They’re continually expanding the greenway, which is to the benefit of a lot of people in San Antonio,” Ramirez said.

As San Antonio keeps growing, Ramirez said the fabric of the community as a “caring and loving city” will remain.

“San Antonio has changed a lot, but it’s also been persistent, and it’s also been adaptive to the times,” he said. “It’s a modern San Antonio, and it’s something that’s only getting better, in my opinion.”

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How San Antonio-based CPS Energy is helping the city recover from the winter storm and making its energy systems more resilient

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CPS Energy installing residential solar panels.

  • CPS Energy is working to make energy and electricity more affordable and reliable in San Antonio.
  • Efforts include revamping infrastructure and increasing sustainability after the winter storm.
  • It’s also one of the city’s partners in its smart-city initiative to pilot smart streetlights.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

When a winter storm hit the state of Texas in February, millions of people lost power, including hundreds of thousands in San Antonio.

The February 2021 winter storm.

Three months later, the city is still feeling the effects. Electricity bills have been much higher than usual, and the event highlighted the vulnerability of the power grid.

Long before the winter storm, CPS Energy, the electric utility for San Antonio and surrounding areas, had been surveying residents to understand what they considered most important. Affordability and reliability usually topped the list, with resiliency a lower priority, Paula Gold-Williams, the company’s president and CEO, told Insider.

Paula Gold Williams portrait 5x7
Paula Gold-Williams.

“Right now, we are in the middle of an affordability tsunami for customers,” she said. “Every time we surveyed them resiliency was always last. Most people thought that was something that the utility needed to focus on, not anything that would ultimately affect them.”

High natural-gas prices and systemic issues with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that operates the state’s electrical grid, trickled down to residents across the state, Gold-Williams, a lifelong San Antonio resident, said. Texas is the only state to use its own power grid, meaning it doesn’t have to adhere to federal regulations.

The winter storm put resiliency at the forefront. Gold-Williams said the industry needs to reimagine power grids and revamp aging infrastructure. CPS Energy is also working with the city of San Antonio on sustainability and smart-city projects.

Here’s a look at some of their biggest initiatives.

It’s supporting measures to minimize the impact of the storm

Supply and demand issues have contributed to the high energy bills following the February storm. Extreme cold weather knocked out generating units and froze natural-gas stores, causing skyrocketing prices for natural gas, which CPS Energy uses to generate heat and electricity.

CPS Energy, which was established in 1860 and is owned by the city of San Antonio, has worked to minimize the effects on residents. Gold-Williams said they’re looking for ways to spread out the costs over the next decade.

The utility also issued one-time credits to residents who lost power for 24 hours during the storm of $8.75, the amount of a flat monthly service charge. Customers who were without electricity for 48 hours or more will receive an additional $50 to $100. More than 250,000 residents are eligible for the credits, which are costing a total of $3.5 million.

In March, CPS Energy filed a lawsuit against ERCOT for its “lack of oversight, preparedness, and failure to follow its own protocols that resulted in $16 billion in overcharges to market participants and customers,” a news release said. EROCT made a $16 billion pricing error the week after the winter storm and allowed the 30-day timeframe for corrections to pass.

Gold-Williams said the utility has been working to better winterize its plants for the past decade, but the state just wasn’t prepared for the unprecedented and prolonged freezing temperatures that it saw in February.

In response, President Joe Biden recently announced plans to devote $8.25 billion to modernize the nation’s electrical grid and support clean-energy goals, a move Gold-Williams applauds.

“We need innovation” in power generation and distribution systems, she said.

It’s piloting smart streetlights to save money

CPS Energy is one of the city of San Antonio’s partners in its smart-city initiative to launch more data- and technology-oriented projects.

“It’s helping us look at technology from an applied standpoint,” Gold-Williams said. “We’re trying to make things happen and not just talk about strategies.”

A Smart Streetlight Technology pilot recently debuted in partnership with the city, AT&T, and Itron. Existing CPS Energy lighting will be equipped with sensors in four areas of the city that allow them to be controlled remotely and test air quality, temperature, ambient noise, parking, and flooding.

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A smart streetlight.

The goal is to gather data to enable the city to save money and address community needs, Gold-Williams said. Research shows installing smart streetlights can save cities money and reduce energy use.

Based on what they learn from the data, the project will be expanded and scaled to the rest of the city.

It’s promoting renewable energy

One way CPS Energy is addressing aging infrastructure and sustainability in San Antonio is through the Flexible Path strategy, which aims to reduce coal and gas usage and increase renewable energy by 2040. This year, the utility is launching a “community-wide dialogue” for the strategy.

Renewable energy use in San Antonio increased 69% from 2010 to 2018, and will increase another 127% under the plan, according to CPS Energy. Gas usage will decrease 72%, and coal will be reduced an additional 61% after dropping 44% from 2010 to 2018. Other initiatives include expanding solar and wind resources and integrating battery storage and electric vehicles.

EV Charging
An electric vehicle charging station.

CPS Energy is currently evaluating request-for-proposal (RFP) responses for the FlexPOWER Bundle. The program will replace gas steam units that are near the end of their lifecycle and increase the number of solar resources, energy storage, and “all-source firming capacity,” or any technology that can be utilized when renewables aren’t available. The company plans to announce the projects selected this summer.

In March, the utility launched another RFP to develop the next phase of its Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), focusing on conservation and energy efficiency. The FlexSTEP RFP aims to strengthen CPS Energy’s reliability by blending “Tried & True” programs, like rebates for being energy efficient, with “Innovative & New” solutions to help customers save money and learn new, more efficient energy-use behaviors.

The Flexible Path strategy emphasizes not relying on what’s been done before, being open to new ideas, and embracing technology and change, Gold-Williams said. Modernizing aging infrastructure and decreasing reliance on nonrenewable energy are issues utility companies worldwide are facing.

“We all have the same problems,” Gold-Williams said. “Our customers are trying to live their lives and they want it to be enabled by advances in technology. We have to embrace all that. We have to partner. We have a lot to learn from technology, but we have a lot to offer in terms of the complexity of our products and services.”

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