A majority of San Antonians support reallocating sales tax revenue toward transportation projects, ConnectSA tri-chair Henry Cisneros told City Council on Wednesday.

The former San Antonio mayor updated City Council members Wednesday on the status of ConnectSA, a comprehensive multimodal transportation plan, and shared the results of a citywide poll from the NRDC Action Fund, which is affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in September 2019.

A recent proposal from Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other local leaders called for redirecting a one-eighth-cent sales tax used for protecting the Edwards Aquifer to funding mass transit. The poll from the NRDC Action Fund asked San Antonio residents how they would vote on “a measure to fund transportation and transit projects that decrease traffic congestion, increase pedestrian safety, and improve bus service for San Antonio by redirecting a 1/8th cent sales tax to those projects.”

The poll found that 65 percent of San Antonians would either “definitely” or “probably” vote in favor of the measure, while 26 percent of San Antonians responded that they would either “definitely” or “probably” vote no. The poll did not specify that the one-eighth-cent-tax would come from the aquifer protection program, though Cisneros said that there was support for that reallocation in separate polling. The number of residents surveyed and how they were chosen was not made available on Wednesday.

Taking the one-eighth-cent of sales tax revenue from the aquifer protection program does not mean the aquifer will be unprotected, Cisneros added. The San Antonio Water System is currently looking at ways to keep the program going if the system were to take it over.

“I don’t want the narrative to be an ‘either/or’ choice,” Cisneros said. “We think we have found a way to deal with the aquifer protection. If we spend the one-eighth-cent on the aquifer, we do not have it for transportation. There is no other way to come up with that money for transportation.”

Cisneros outlined the priorities of ConnectSA in the next five years. The plan is projected to cost $1.36 billion and includes improvements to city streets and county roads, sidewalks, linear trails, protected micromobility lanes, smart transit and mobility on demand, a better bus system, and advanced rapid transit. Highways were also included in the plan, but funding for those projects will be provided by the Texas Department of Transportation to the tune of $3.6 billion.

Former HUD Secretary and ConnectSA Tri-Chair Henry Cisneros presents the proposed ConnectSA plan to City Council.

For context, the proposed transit plan in front of Austin City Council is much more costly, Cisneros said. Austin’s Project Connect could cost anywhere between $3 billion and $10 billion, CBS Austin reported.

Besides reallocating the one-eighth-cent sales tax toward transit, projected funding for the ConnectSA plan includes $665 million from the City in the 2022 bond, $42.5 million from reallocating the one-sixteenth-cent sales tax from the Advanced Transportation District (ATD), $105 million from Bexar County through certificates of obligation, $83.7 million from the City and County to fund the linear creek trail system, and $269 million in federally matched dollars after an Advanced Rapid Transit system is employed. The advanced rapid transit portion of ConnectSA would dedicate street lanes to transit, whether that be bus or some other form of transportation in the future, Cisneros said. 

San Antonio is missing out on a large portion of federally matched funding due to its lack of local investment in qualifying projects such as bus rapid transit, VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt added.

Council members expressed hesitation about some of the proposed funding mechanisms. Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) asked how Council can be sure that federal matching dollars are guaranteed, while Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she was not completely on board with funding a significant portion of ConnectSA’s plan with the 2022 bond.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) also objected to the amount ConnectSA seeks from the 2022 bond.

“That’s my biggest problem with this – we’re shifting most of the bond toward this program versus street maintenance and repairs,” Perry said.

“We’re going to be neglecting a lot of failed streets with this proposal. I can tell you what my neighbors in District 10 will say about that.”

Nirenberg said after the meeting that Perry was conflating bond money with funding from the Infrastructure Management Program (IMP), which budgets for street maintenance every year. Bonds do not take care of simpler street repair projects, such as potholes, he said.

“Street maintenance and repairs are not conducted by the five-year bond programs,” Nirenberg said. “They are in the annual budget of [Transportation and Capital Improvements] which is not impacted by ConnectSA.”

Council members showed strong interest in expanding VIA Metropolitan Transit’s mobility-on-demand program, called VIA Link. The VIA Link program allows customers in a certain area to schedule a ride in a car, similar to using Uber or Lyft, which takes them to a larger transit hub connecting them to the rest of the VIA system.

“VIA Link is an appropriate response to suburban development,” Arndt said. “Big buses on fixed routes have difficulty serving those communities. The transit industry for many years has said, ‘Buses don’t work in the suburbs.’”

VIA began testing the program in a Northeast neighborhood and has logged more than 100,000 rides on VIA Link vehicles since the program started in April. VIA has determined it can potentially put VIA Link in eight more neighborhoods over the next five years, Cisneros said.

“This is a revolution in how mobility is going to occur, and it’s one of the more attractive dimensions we’ve got here,” Cisneros said.

City Council will revisit ConnectSA at its Feb. 19 meeting, City Manager Erik Walsh said. ConnectSA hopes to put the reallocation of the one-eighth-cent sales tax to San Antonio voters in the November election.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.