San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined other local leaders this week in calling for a one-eighth-cent sales tax to be redirected towards funding mass transit – and away from popular water quality protection and trailway programs.
Voters would need to approve the new appropriation of the existing tax, and City Council’s OK is is required to set the ballot language for the November 2020 election. The Advanced Transportation District board, comprising VIA Metropolitan Transit board members, would first call for the election.
“That’s what I’ll be bringing forward to my colleagues [on Council] and that’s what we’ll be bringing forward to voters in 2020,” Nirenberg said.
He pledged to find other sources of funding to continue the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP), but the plan faces fierce criticism from aquifer and environmental advocates, who don’t want to risk losing long-term funding for the acclaimed water protection program.
“Aquifer protection is extremely important to me and to the San Antonio community,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report this week. “We can all agree that a modern city should be doing both of these things – and we can.”
The only mechanism to fund transportation operations is through sales tax, he said. “We have to reverse our 40-year underinvestment in transportation.”
Expanding mass transit is a key component of ConnectSA, a comprehensive multimodal transportation plan that is being developed by a nonprofit of the same name. Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff formed ConnectSA in 2018.
The one-eighth-cent sales tax is the only source that Wolff sees as a viable option, he said last month. Former Mayor Henry Cisneros and former City Attorney Jane Macon, two of the three chairs of ConnectSA, also have suggested the tax redirect to support the plan, which is estimated to require $1.3 billion in additional funding for projects and initiatives through 2025. City Council is slated to review a draft of the ConnectSA plan in early December.
The aquifer program allows the City to purchase conservation easements above the Edwards aquifer to prevent development that impacts the quality and quantity of water that seeps into the ground to replenish the water supply. Most drinking water in the city, provided by San Antonio Water Supply, comes from the aquifer.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s been money wasted by any stretch,” Nirenberg said of the EAPP. “We’ve bought ourselves a lot of time in fighting sprawl and the negative impacts [that brings] to the aquifer over the last 20 years.”
Since voters approved the program in 2000, $268 million has been spent for aquifer protection and $113 million for funding the linear creekway trail system, according to the City. Nearly 160,000 acres of land is protected and 69 miles of trails have been built, with another 50 miles funded. Voters have overwhelmingly approved the tax four times.
“I know we need money for transportation here, but water is just so much of a backbone resource,” said Francine Romero, chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Public Administration and chair of the City’s Conservation Advisory Board. “There’s nothing more important than water.”
While the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) plans to increase its portion of the local property tax for various purposes including aquifer protection, it cannot entirely replace the protection program, officials have said. Nirenberg said pursuing the VIA funding is “not contingent at all” on the result of SARA’s tax increase proposal. That tax increase, too, must first gain voter approval.
SARA could take over and add to the trail program, but it can’t purchase land outside of the city’s watershed, such as in Uvalde County and portions of Medina County, where contributing zones to the aquifer are located.
More land acquisition is needed in those areas, Romero said, as there are vast chunks of land that are unprotected in the contributing zone.
“The total watershed geographically applicable to the EAPP is between 2.5 and 2.8 million acres,” according to a report compiled by the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “When viewed in this manner, the total protected area of the watershed as of the end of 2018 is about six percent, meaning that about 94 percent of this area remains unprotected.”
A committee of experts evaluates eligible properties and prioritizes land that will have the most impact on water quality, Romero said, adding that the program is used as a model across the U.S. and receives international attention.
“It’s such an elegant solution,” she said. “It’s just not clear why you would want to end this amazing program to support our water.”
In 2005, changes made by the State Legislature allowed the EAPP to start buying land outside of Bexar County. Nirenberg wants to ask the State to change the rules surrounding how cities can spend their bond money to do the same.
“I’m hopeful because there have been a few issues that have gained strong bipartisan approval over the years, and protecting our drinking water has been one of them,” Nirenberg said. “This is such a widely popular program. It’s popular not because of its source of funding, but because of the mission that it represents.”
The City’s bond, which totaled $850 million in 2017, may not have enough room to support the EAPP, Romero said. The City also wants to fund affordable housing projects and new transportation infrastructure called for by ConnectSA, such as more micromobility lanes for electric scooters and bikes.
With all that coming on top of the new facilities and sidewalk improvements that voters have come to expect out of bond packages, Romero said, “it’s a lot [of pressure] to put on that poor little bond.”
The EAPP will have some funding to continue into 2021, the same year that the State Legislature would need to approve the rule change about land acquisition through the bond. The next bond election is in 2022.
“At best it would be an interruption for the EAPP,” she said, and acreage becomes more expensive every year.
As important as aquifer protection is, Nirenberg said, San Antonio can’t afford to continue to underfund mass transportation if it wants to achieve its goals for climate change mitigation and equity for its residents.
“We must build a public [and] modern transportation system in San Antonio in order to have a resilient, equitable, and environmentally sustainable community,” he said.
In 1977, Bexar County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to establish VIA Metropolitan Transit. Other major population centers in Texas approved a full cent. This, along with planning policies that allowed the city to sprawl, has stunted San Antonio’s ability to provide comprehensive mass transit service across the city, said VIA Board Chair and former City Councilman Rey Saldaña.
Refocusing the sales tax is “an opportunity to correct a mistake of the past,” he said.
San Antonio approved another quarter-cent tax for an ATD in 2004. VIA also gets half of that money for improvement projects.
VIA’s ambitious plans to improve service in the past have been “pie-in-the-sky ideas” without substantial funding behind them, Saldaña said. “That eighth-cent tax puts [those ideas] squarely in the realm of possibility.”
The VIA Reimagined plan, which builds on its Vision 2040 Long-Range Plan, calls for more frequent service on existing routes, implementing dedicated lanes for advanced rapid transit, and using advanced technology to provide flexible service including on-demand first- and last-mile transit to and from bus stops.
And a lack of affordable access to transportation has kept impoverished neighborhoods poor for too long, Saldaña said. “We’ve unjustly underfunded our transit agency for 40 years. … This is our time.”
But betting the future of the aquifer protection program on the State Legislature is not a wager the city – or voters – should take, said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. “It’s not a sure thing,” she said.
The alliance comprises 52 member groups including environmental advocacy and neighborhood organizations. Of the 15 member groups in San Antonio, Peace said, none of them supported reallocating the tax towards transportation.
“Not only no, but hell no” was their response, she said.
The alliance plans on actively campaigning against the sales tax shift, she said. “It’s not going to be an easy sell.”
Peace supports funding mass transit at a higher level, but the city should ask the state to change the rules for transportation funding “instead of coming after the EAPP,” she said.
A bill that would have allowed local voters to petition for an increase in the sales and use tax for transportation projects in Texas cities died during the last legislative session.
Nirenberg acknowledged that it will be hard to convince some voters that funding mass transit is worth the potential risk to the EAPP.
“I don’t think our fear of failure should continue to scale our dreams for the future,” Nirenberg said. “The only way we know we [will] fail is by not taking the risk. Why not play to win for a change?”