Funding a modern mobility plan for San Antonio might require shifting existing sales taxes away from protecting the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and creating linear creekway parks, the plan’s architects said.

At Friday meeting at the Rivard Report’s offices, two of the three tri-chairs of the ConnectSA initiative, Henry Cisneros and Jane Macon, presented the framework of their transportation plan, along with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and San Antonio mayor, and Macon, former City Attorney and partner with international law firm Bracewell, spent the better part of 2018 working on a vision to move residents around a growing and increasingly congested San Antonio. The third ConnectSA tri-chair appointed by Nirenberg and Wolff is Hope Andrade, formerly chair of VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board.

The plan would implement rapid transit in bus-only lanes in key highway arteries of the city, expand sidewalks and protected bike and scooter lanes, and shrink bus wait times, among other initiatives, planners said.

It would require initial funding of $1.3 billion by 2025 to deliver on early capital projects, including an “advanced rapid transit” corridor  that runs down part of the central spine of the city along U.S. 281 and San Pedro Avenue.

“This is a plan that threads the needle,” Cisneros said. “We try to get as advanced as we can for San Antonio but in a cost-effective way, because our pocketbook is limited here.”

To meet a set of near-term programs by 2025, officials would have to break ground on a bus rapid-transit project by 2021, Cisneros said.

To provide funding, planners are eyeing the 1/8-cent sales tax passed in 2016 and meant to generate $180 million through 2020 to purchase land over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and create new linear park spaces, such as those along Leon and Salado creeks.

Passed in 2015, the twin sales tax proposals were meant to generate $100 million for aquifer protection and $80 million for linear creekway parks. Under the aquifer program, the City uses the funding to purchase undeveloped land west of Bexar County where rainfall and flowing streams supply the city’s main drinking water source.

The Edwards Aquifer is a vast limestone rock layer that stretches from McKinney County to north of Austin. Much of the rain that makes its way to San Antonio first lands in counties to the west San Antonio and makes its way into the aquifer in an area known as the recharge zone.

Four times since 2000, San Antonio voters have approved sales taxes to generate funding to protect land over the recharge zone, typically through conservation easements.

So far, the initiative has prevented 156,081 acres over the recharge zone from being developed. For perspective, that’s about half the size of San Antonio city limits.

San Antonio’s sales tax is capped at 8.25 percent, though voters could approve shifting the sales tax away from aquifer protection and linear parks to another area, such as transportation.

Sean, 10, celebrates his birthday with a ride along the Alazán Creek Linear at Woodlawn Lake Park. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Sean, 10, celebrates his birthday with a ride along the Alazán Creek Linear Park at Woodlawn Lake. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“Why would we do that?” Cisneros said. “Well, one, because the tax is expiring [in 2020]. Two, because the program is nearing the end, there’s less to do. Thirdly, because all of the land that’s left to buy is outside Bexar County.”

Supporters of the program say there’s much land over the recharge zone left to be preserved. San Antonio has no water treatment plants that clean water after it’s pumped out of the ground, so many see preserving land as the best way to keep the city’s main water supply from getting contaminated.

“I’m kind of taken aback,” said Francine Romero, who chairs the Conservation Advisory Board that provides oversight of the program.

“Looking at the transportation report, there’s just that line that we should take money from that sales tax,” Romero continued. “There’s absolutely no consideration of where that program is [and] what that would mean.”

Romero, a University of Texas at San Antonio associate dean, has served as chair since 2011. She said while the program has done a good job of preserving the recharge zone, it is just beginning to focus on the land upstream of the recharge zone where water flows towards the aquifer.

“[The aquifer] is a system,” Romero said. “There are scientists who can advise us on how best to preserve the system.”

Annalisa Peace, executive director of the advocacy group Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said the program should preserve “as much as we can get, especially close to Bexar County, because the danger of it being developed out are pretty imminent.”

However, Peace was open to the idea of the program being funded a different way, such as through bond money. Other communities, such as San Marcos and Austin, use different means to purchase land over the recharge zone for protection, she said.

Nirenberg thinks the funding for aquifer protection should continue, though maybe not under a sales tax.

“My perspective is we need to find an alternate funding mechanism,” he said. “One of them, for  example, would require some legislative authorization to provide for bond funds to be used outside of Bexar County.”

Romero said that even if bond money could be used, “the beauty of the sales tax is how clearly defined we have to be.”

“State law says it’s for watershed protection,” Romero said. “You can’t stray from that, so if people started to say, ‘Well, this parcel of land is really beautiful or really historic,’ you can’t do that.”

Finding another way to fund linear parks might be easier. Because moving people around San Antonio requires further investment in creekway trails, Nirenberg and Cisneros said bond funds could continue providing for their expansion.

Though the sales tax is one of the most specific funding sources proposed for the transportation plan, the draft includes several other proposals as well. One is shifting some tax revenue derived via an existing “advanced transportation district” from the City to “larger-scale mobility projects.”

It also proposes the creation of an additional “transportation user fee,” such as those used in Corpus Christi, Bryan, and Austin.

Another funding idea involves the Texas Legislature allowing the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority to collect an additional $10-per-year vehicle registration fee on top of the $10 annual fee already collected within Bexar County.

Other ideas that are more undefined at this stage of the planning process include bond funding, drawing on “public-private partnerships,” drawing on state and federal funds, and other tax districts and fees.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.