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More than 30 organizations and businesses have pledged their support for the local transportation district’s Proposition A on the November ballot, which asks voters if they want to divert an additional one-eighth-cent sales tax toward expanding and enhancing mass transit.
Some of the more than 75 business and community leaders so far who have pledged their support gathered as individuals at Brooks on Thursday to highlight decades of under-investment in VIA Metropolitan Transit; a thriving economy, they said, needs a reliable bus system.
“For us to be successful, VIA needs to be successful,” said Jim Cambell, chair of the Brooks Development Authority. “We have all kinds of jobs here at Brooks. We have CEOs that I’m sure are driving themselves to work in their fancy cars – and that’s a good thing. But we also have workers at the hotel, and we have workers at the hospital who probably need to have public transit.”
VIA receives less than three-quarters of a cent of the City’s share of sales tax (1 percent) while most transportation agencies in large Texas metropolitan areas dedicate a full cent. If Proposition A is approved, another eighth of a cent would be directed to VIA in perpetuity starting in 2026 – at $35-$40 million per year. A separate proposition (Prop B) would use that revenue for workforce training and education programs from 2021-2015.
Currently, that tax is spent on protecting the Edwards Aquifer and funding hike and bike trails across the city. The City will pick up aquifer protection, and Bexar County has pledged to fund trails. Some environmentalists want to see the tax continue to fund those programs.
State Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio), who previously represented District 6 on City Council, said he is confident that the new funding sources for aquifer and trail programs will be successful.
“VIA got the short end of the stick … and San Antonio continues to grow and grow,” Lopez said. “The community is recognizing that we’ve waited long enough. … [VIA has] done so much with so little for so long.”
VIA’s long-term Keep SA Moving plan would expand the bus system and on-demand service, increase frequency, and lay the groundwork for a network of dedicated transit lanes. For people who can’t afford a car, the bus is often their only option, and some have to walk for miles to catch a bus.
“Our city deserves reliable transportation,” said Tuesdaé Knight, president and CEO of an Antonio for Growth on the East Side (SAGE). “It’s difficult to create a path to economic mobility when you don’t have the physical means to get to jobs, schools, [or] businesses.”
For many people with disabilities, the bus system is the only way they can be independent, said Athalie Malone, who chairs VIA’s Disability Access Advisory Committee.
“After 40 years of underfunding, I do think it’s time we start funding VIA right,” said Malone, who is visually impaired and has been riding VIA buses for 40 years.
Reliable mass transportation is also something that highly skilled workers and companies look for in a city, said Dax Moreno, chief talent officer of Tech Bloc and creator of the Tech Talent Central program.
“There’s something really clear about the talent that’s coming and, being homegrown in San Antonio, it’s that they want to stay here,” Moreno said. “And in order to stay here, they have to have opportunities.”
Critics of VIA and the Keep SA Moving plan have cited VIA’s declining ridership since 2013 and “empty buses” they see on the streets.
When people notice empty buses, it’s usually during their commute in their cars, Lopez said. “The folks who are essential to our community and to our businesses … left two to three hours before you even got up.”
The timing of vote – six years before VIA would see any of this funding – is the result of a compromise with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who wanted to see workforce development funded as an economic recovery tool in the wake of the pandemic.
“It wasn’t VIA’s idea to delay receiving that revenue stream,” Lopez said. However, by approving it now, it gives VIA a head start on planning implementation and finding ways to leverage that future investment.
“All agencies that get federal and state funding have to have a methodology of paying it back,” he said. “Having this guaranteed revenue stream … allows VIA to be in a position to get advanced funding of projects.”