Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (left) and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who once supported a one-eighth-cent sales tax shift to support public transit funding, are now asking the VIA Metropolitan Transit board to hold off.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (left) and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who once supported a one-eighth-cent sales tax shift to support public transit funding, are now asking the VIA Metropolitan Transit board to hold off. File photograph from June, 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Nine more days.

That’s how long VIA Metropolitan Transit board members say they will give the City and County to come to an agreement about shifting a one-eighth-cent sales tax that currently funds aquifer protection and trails to instead fund transportation.

At their meeting Tuesday, VIA board members tabled until July 2 a measure to give formal notice about their intent to place the sales tax issue on the November ballot. The issue has emerged as the first serious local political fight in the coronavirus era. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, VIA’s strongest champions earlier this year, now oppose putting the issue to voters in November.

VIA leaders frame the tax shift as their best chance to avoid service cuts and finally fund the transit authority at the level it needs. The one-eighth-cent tax is part of a one-cent tax originally set aside by the Texas Legislature to fund transportation. San Antonio is unique among large Texas cities for having a transit system that directly receives only a half-cent, with the rest going toward other initiatives.

“This isn’t about plugging a deficit,” trustee Amanda Merck said at the meeting. “It’s about addressing systemic social injustices that have built the most [economically] segregated city in the country.”

The board’s vote on Tuesday allows VIA board chair Hope Andrade and a team of her choosing more time to negotiate with the City and County. Most board members said they plan to vote in July to move forward with the tax proposition. Merck and trustee Ezra Johnson both voted no, saying they preferred not to wait.

“Our turn is now; we must act now,” VIA board vice-chair Bob Comeaux said. “If some agreement has not been reached by July 2, then at that [meeting] I will be very proud to make that motion that we put the one-eighth-cent sales tax on the ballot in November.”

VIA board members weren’t the only ones at the meeting who expressed support for more funding. Representatives of the Hispanic and South San Antonio chambers of commerce, San Antonio for Growth on the East Side, and the Presa Community Center transportation coalition were among those who spoke in favor of the tax shift.

“Transportation is a vehicle to wellness,” said Dr. Erica Gonzalez, a physician and Hispanic Chamber chair who said helping residents move freely around the city is key to the pandemic recovery.

Nirenberg and Wolff both say the timing is wrong to put the issue to voters and that with $93 million in federal emergency coronavirus relief funding, VIA ought to be able to figure out how to get by for now without slashing services.

“How do you go to voters and ask for more money when your ridership is down 50 percent?” Wolff said in a daily press briefing Tuesday. “How do you go to voters and ask for money for VIAtrans when your riders are down 80 percent? The timing’s just not right. I think we all want to help on transit, but they need to kind of develop their plan with what resources they have available, and maybe they can go to voters next year.”

VIA officials say their fixed-route bus ridership is down 45 percent and that VIAtrans ridership has rebounded from an 80-percent to a 50-percent decline compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Aside from the timing, there’s also been wrangling over budget numbers after VIA released an initial estimate last week that its shortfall would add up to $126.2 million by 2025. After a meeting on Friday, both sides ended up agreeing on the same basic numbers, even though their conclusions look vastly different on the surface.

VIA officials now say they’ll have a $111.3 million deficit in five years, a downward revision based in part on updated sales tax projections from VIA’s economic consultant. But City staff say VIA’s shortfall will be $59.4 million by 2025, as detailed in a memo released Monday.

The difference between those projections is $51.9 million in funding over five years from the City to VIA in exchange for more frequent buses on 18 routes. City Manager Erik Walsh has said the City plans to continue giving VIA that money; VIA CEO Jeff Ardnt has said that because that money needs approval from City Council each year, VIA can’t count on it in its projections.

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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.