Outgoing Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) accepts the role as Via Metropolitan Transit Board chair.
VIA Chairman Rey Saldaña believes that far more San Antonians would be bus riders if the system were adequately funded and commuters were incentivized to leave their vehicles at home. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

City, County, and VIA Metropolitan Transit officials are pushing ahead toward a November 2020 ballot initiative that would dedicate an additional one-eighth-cent sales tax to San Antonio’s historically underfunded public transit system.

The premise, supporters tell me, is twofold:

One, there is no practical way to better serve existing riders and attract new riders without significant and sustained investment. The funds are needed to improve route frequency and better connect the suburbs and urban core by establishing dedicated bus rapid transit lanes.

Better public transit and expanded mobility choices, officials argue, are key to the ConnectSA plan and reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality and public health, and addressing worsening congestion. 

You can read more at VIA Reimagined.

For more than four decades, San Antonio has dedicated only one-half-cent sales tax for public transportation, while other Texas cities have applied the maximum 1-cent sales tax approved by the Texas Legislature in 1977. Those cities now have mass transit systems far superior to VIA, and Dallas and Houston, in particular, have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal matching funds. San Antonio watched from the sidelines. 

Two, the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and the buildout of the city’s linear hike and bike trails currently funded by the tax can be adequately funded in other ways. Less money will be needed in future years as the aquifer protection program achieves its goals and the trail system is completed.

Nearly 20 years and $268 million later, the same one-eighth-cent sales tax has protected 90 percent of the sensitive features over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in Bexar County, according to one City source, with more than $44 million remaining to continue purchasing or protecting undeveloped land. At the current spend rate of $19 million a year, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff say, that’s more than enough to see the program through its expiration in 2021.

Neighboring Medina and Uvalde counties, they point out, are not experiencing urbanization. The agricultural and ranching economies that dominate land use are not a threat to the recharge zone.

Medina County’s population grew about 10 percent from 46,006 to 50,921 between 2010 and 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Uvalde County grew at a 1.7 percent rate over the same time period, from 26,405 to 26,846.

The facts are compelling, but those who oppose the shift in the one-eighth-cent sales tax have their own arguments.

About 70 percent of the aquifer recharge zone lies west of Bexar County, and any interruption in funding could expose sensitive properties to alternative developments in the future as the metro area continues to sprawl unchecked.

The tax has proven to be one of the most popular voter-approved initiatives in San Antonio. The facts and figures now being mustered by elected and VIA officials have not been widely cited until now, so many voters who believe the successful program should be continued will need to be convinced.

Citizens who serve on the City’s Conservation Advisory Board and the Linear Creekway Parks Advisory Board, and the organizations they represent, will have to be convinced, too. Given their role in overseeing the City’s acquisitions and expenditures over the recharge zone and expansion of the hike and bike trails, that will not be easy.

In effect, elected officials will be reversing the stance they have adopted every five years since 2000 in urging voters to approve use of the one-eighth cent sales tax for these protections. City voters get their drinking water primarily from the Edwards Aquifer. Far fewer of them ride VIA buses, so the natural inclination is to vote one’s personal needs or interests.

VIA Chairman Rey Saldaña, who was VIA’s strongest advocate when he served on City Council from 2011 to 2019, makes a convincing case that far more San Antonians would be bus riders if the system was adequately funded and commuters were incentivized to leave their vehicles at home. Instead, he notes, past elected officials presided over a bus system that was starved of funding and political support and thus served only working class residents and those who could not afford their own personal vehicle.

The choice for voters was complicated after the San Antonio River Authority rejected a modest property tax increase that would have made it easier for elected officials to convince voters to shift the sales tax to VIA.

Mayor Nirenberg and others who support the tax shift are now exploring use of the 2022 bond to create a fund to continue the EAPP, but that will require legislative approval. In the past, such local control proposals were routinely approved. With the Texas Legislature and cities locked in so many disputes, however, nothing can be taken for granted anymore.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of EAPP spending to date. The correct figure is $268 million expended, and $325 million approved overall by voters.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.