This story has been updated.

The fate of a proposal to shift sales tax revenue that currently funds aquifer protection to pay for improved public transit has put VIA Metropolitan Transit and its board at odds with Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Even though the mayor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have pulled their support for a November ballot measure on moving one-eighth-cent of sales tax revenue to transit, the VIA Metropolitan Transit board is determined to put the matter to voters, even as the intended use of the funds has changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The VIA Metropolitan Transit board will vote at their meeting next Tuesday on putting the sales tax reallocation measure on the November ballot. The one-eighth-cent sales tax, which currently funds a popular aquifer protection program and the creation of linear parks, was to be reallocated to VIA to build advanced rapid transit for the comprehensive multimodal transportation plan ConnectSA.

However, the coronavirus pandemic reshuffled the priorities of both the City and VIA, which has elected to halt its advanced rapid transit plan but asserts that it still needs the additional sales tax revenue to avoid reductions in service.

With VIA’s change of plans, Nirenberg withdrew his backing for a November tax reallocation vote.

“The one-eighth-cent sales tax was being discussed and prepared for an expansion of transit and a modernization of public transportation in San Antonio,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report Wednesday. “VIA took that off the table, as a result of this pandemic. And I think justifiably so. We’ve had to reprioritize our near-term agenda and every agency, every organization of businesses is having to do that, too, and that’s what VIA has done. So that one-eighth-cent campaign is off the table.”

Nirenberg reiterated his position in a letter sent to City Council members Wednesday evening, emphasizing again that he does not support a November vote to put the one-eighth-cent sales tax on the November ballot.

“Because we have not seen a detailed five-year financial forecast laid out in a way to which we are accustomed, it is concerning that VIA Metropolitan Transit is still projecting a $218.5 million deficit in their unrestricted cash reserve balance,” Nirenberg wrote. “I am asking VIA to present the steps they are taking to manage operations within their budget, accounting for their recent [federal coronavirus relief funding] allocation.”

The VIA board also functions as the board of the Advanced Transportation District (ATD), which uses a quarter-cent to fund transportation projects from VIA, the City of San Antonio, and the Texas Department of Transportation. VIA received $175.5 million in 2017 and $186 million in 2018 from that sales tax revenue. The district, which San Antonio voted to form in 2004, can call an election on a sales tax measure without the support of the City or County, said Bonnie Prosser Elder, senior vice president of legal and general counsel at VIA.

The board will vote next Tuesday on whether to proceed with putting the sales tax reallocation measure on the November ballot.

At a work session on Tuesday, members of VIA’s board of trustees talked with Nirenberg and Wolff about the importance of redirecting the revenue to bolster VIA operations.

Nirenberg questioned how VIA’s financial projections could be so dire even with $93 million in federal coronavirus relief funding. The funding is intended to shore up the transit system as VIA suspended fares and ridership decreased under statewide stay-at-home orders.

VIA received a financial forecast from consulting company TXP in May that projected even with the federal relief money, the transit agency would be $126 million short over the next five years. VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt said Wednesday the agency received updated financial projections from TXP and the board would review those numbers in July.

Arndt said VIA anticipates cutting one-third of its routes if the agency does not receive the reallocated sales tax revenue, impacting an estimated 150,000 fixed-bus route riders and 1,400 users of VIAtrans, VIA’s paratransit service available to riders with disabilities who can’t use the regular bus routes.

If federal coronavirus funding covers VIA’s budgetary shortfall for 2020 and most of 2021, as Arndt confirmed Tuesday, Nirenberg said he didn’t want to “create a false sense of urgency to rush to a November vote.”

If San Antonio wants to address housing security and workforce development, the region must invest in transportation options for the community, VIA trustee Amanda Merck said.

“Because there aren’t options in San Antonio, so people have to buy a vehicle,” she said. “They have to spend their precious limited household budgets on a vehicle. That means that here in San Antonio it’s essentially a pay to work system, and we all know the inequities of pay to play.” 

VIA board chair Hope Andrade invited Nirenberg and Wolff to sit down with her to discuss the future of VIA funding.

“What we’re asking for is a commitment that we will have a lifeline to continue and not affect our current riders,” Andrade said. 

“When the mayor asks us for a contingency plan, we’ve been underfunded. We don’t have an option of having a contingency plan like other transit agencies. So, whether it’s [a vote] for November, whether it’s May [2021] – at this point, what we need is some commitment in the comfort to know that we are moving forward and we are not going to have to exercise any options in reducing service or eliminating routes.”

Nirenberg agreed to meet with VIA officials and said he wants to have City staff look over VIA’s numbers to see how best to proceed without impacting riders who depend on transit.

“I’m not sure how you can continue to say that we’re cutting VIAtrans,” Nirenberg told the board. “We don’t even know how much that operation costs. Let’s work together. Let’s sit down and figure out how we can do these things, not just for the near term to make sure that we’re not affecting riders, but also long term how we can get to a point where, where we can start growing transit again in San Antonio.”

Arndt also stressed that VIA serves many residents who cannot afford cars but are crucial to the San Antonio economy.

“VIA is part of the recovery,” Arndt told the Rivard Report Wednesday. “There’s no doubt about that. We are the way many people – particularly people who live in poverty – get to the doctor, get to their job, get to the grocery store.”

Nirenberg told the Rivard Report Wednesday that VIA’s struggles are not unique.

“The pandemic has disrupted the priorities nationwide, and every agency is having to reassess its essential service,” Nirenberg said. “We want to work with them to make sure that no families are impacted, especially the most vulnerable members of our community, such as those who require services like VIA Trans. And I look forward to sitting with them and seeing how public transportation factors into our overall recovery program.”

Merck said Tuesday that investing more funds in VIA would not be simply plugging a deficit.

“This is about historic disinvestment in equitable and resilient communities,” Merck said. “It’s about undoing the social and racial injustices that have segregated neighborhoods and isolated families from opportunity.”

Next Tuesday, the VIA board will vote on whether to provide notice of intent to call a vote on the one-eighth-cent sales tax reallocation. VIA will need to come to an agreement with the Bexar County Elections Department by Aug. 17 on election terms to be included on the November ballot.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct VIA’s projected service reduction if it does not receive additional funding through the one-eighth-cent sales tax.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.