With vision, purpose and commitment, city leaders can shape a future San Antonio that will include light rail, HOV lanes, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) operating in dedicated lanes, a comprehensive network of bike lanes, and sidewalks on every street. Left to continue on its current track, San Antonio will experience ever-worsening air quality, highways choked with traffic congestion, appalling levels of pedestrian and cycling accidents and fatalities, and further declines in the city’s poor public health profile.
Which city do you and your children want to live in? The time to choose is now.
City Council is scheduled to adopt the SA Tomorrow plan in August. The link in the first sentence of this column takes you to the recently released draft of the transportation plan. At the same time, VIA’s staff is in the process of updating its 2035 Plan, renamed Vision 2040, with release of the draft due in early July. The VIA board of trustees is scheduled to adopt that new plan in August, so both the City plan and the VIA plan are progressing toward completion and adoption hand-in-hand.
They share something else in common: Both plans envision a multimodal transit system that exists now only on paper. The plans are unfunded, and thus are aspirational only. Citizens should not assume long-term transportation solutions are being adopted and enacted in San Antonio. Both plans could very well end up in the Master Plan Dustbin that has claimed so many other thoughtful, but unfunded and unenacted plans in the past.
The SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan is hundreds of pages long, but if you read nothing else, read the Executive Summary and then skip to the end of the report and read Section Seven: How Do We Get There? This is where the funding strategies and options can be found.
The draft plan is light on financial projections and models, but it does show that a variety of funding mechanisms and tools are available to address the chronically underfunded VIA Metro Transit agency, which serves a geography roughly equal to the Houston METRO service area, but does so with a bus fleet one-third the size running half as often in frequency, and thus attracting less than half as many riders.
San Antonio’s elected and appointed leaders at the City, at VIA, the County and at the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will have to set aside their natural inclination to defend home turf and come together to convince the public to fund long-term transit options. It’s unclear today that the political will to achieve that unity of purpose exists.
One only has to observe the inertia of the City’s Advanced Transportation District (ATD) Ad Hoc Committee, which was unable to reach consensus last week when it met again to consider Councilman Rey Saldaña’s proposal to shift $10 million in ATD funds from the City to VIA. That money would have helped VIA improve the frequency rates of bus routes serving about 60% of its ridership.
Saldaña, who represents District 4 on the Southside, is one of the very few elected officials who has experienced more than token bus ridership. He parked his car for an extended period last year to gain a better appreciation of life for people in our city who have no other choice and rely on the bus as their basic mode of transportation. What he learned is that it is all but impossible to keep a schedule as a working professional, given the infrequency of bus arrivals, and it’s awfully hot at those bus shelters in the summer, too hot for a guy in a suit and tie.
(Read more: Saldaña Drops His Keys and Boards the Bus)
If a City Council committee and staff can’t agree on the value of a $10 million allocation to VIA, how can we expect the leadership of public entities to come together and agree on a multi-year funding campaign that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and, ultimately, several billion dollars?
“It’s clear to me that we have spent seven figures worth of funds, not to mention people’s time, in poring our aspirations into plans,” Saldaña said. “Have we executed with actual financial investments? Have we put our money where our mouth is? Pre-K 4 SA and downtown investments and incentives prove what is possible when we do.
“Both plans highlight the importance of collaboration with our partners,” Saldaña added. “VIA is the multimodal partner, and VIA doesn’t have a planning problem, they have an operating dollars problem. If we are to achieve our aspirations outlined in the plans, we need to fund them.”
The fact is that San Antonio had the same legislative authority that Dallas, Houston and Austin had to pursue up to a 1% local sales tax for its transit agency. Those three cities chose to ask their voters to levy the full 1%. In San Antonio, City Council chose to pursue only one-half cent.
In effect we “robbed” ourselves. A new generation of leadership will have to come together now and find ways to overcome that mistake. Otherwise, the SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan will never be realized.
VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt delivered a presentation to his advisory committee last week titled A Tale of Four Cities. It shows San Antonio badly trailing Dallas, Houston and Austin, where the public transit systems get their core operating funds from a one-cent sales tax allocation. VIA, in contrast, is allocated one half-cent, a decision made in 1977 that has had a profoundly negative impact on VIA’s development.
Dallas and Houston have light rail systems and larger, modern bus fleets. San Antonio remains the largest city in the country without light rail. Our city’s lack of light rail and dedicated lanes for BRT cause San Antonio to forgo million of dollars in Federal Transit Agency grants each year that could be financing more new buses, better bus shelters and additional facility projects that are currently financed with the VIA sales tax.
Houston Metro, on the other hand, was able to bank unspent sales tax revenue year after year and build deep financial reserves, enough to pay cash for its first light rail line.
San Antonio’s sales tax rate is 8.25%, the maximum allowed under state law. The State of Texas collects 6.25% sales tax and then permits local jurisdictions local option sales taxes of up to 2%. These local option sales taxes are implemented through local elections. In San Antonio, the 2% local sales tax is comprised of five parts:
- One percent goes to the City and is used to fill out its General Fund.
- One-half percent goes to VIA and is the major source of operating funds for public transportation.
- One-quarter percent goes to the Advanced Transportation District (ATD) for a variety of transportation improvements.
- One-eighth percent funds the Pre-K 4 SA early childhood learning program. One-eighth percent is for aquifer protection and hike and bike trails.
The ATD sales tax is divided into three pots:
- VIA gets half of the ATD funds and uses the money to pay for limited stop, express bus and PRIMO services.
- The City gets one-quarter and uses the ATD dollars for sidewalks and traffic signal improvements.
- The last one-quarter goes to Bexar County/Texas Department of Transportation and is used to help finance major roadway and freeway improvement projects. This one piece of the ATD is a leveraged fund, meaning withdrawals have to be met with matching funds from other partners.
It is highly unlikely at this juncture that the City will allocate any of its one-cent sales tax to VIA, but the SA Tomorrow plan does identify numerous funding mechanisms that can be deployed to make a sustained, long-term investment in San Antonio’s multimodal transportation future. The question is whether officials across different public entities will come together and take the political risk of asking the public to invest in transportation.
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) calls the SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan “a generational opportunity,” and he has called publicly for 2017 bond funds to set things in motion. It is not a call that others at City Hall have joined Nirenberg in making.
(Editor’s note: Both Saldaña and Nirenberg are being invited to submit commentaries expanding on their respective proposals to increase funding for VIA.)
Top image: The new VIVA route buses will hit the streets on Monday, June 6. Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.