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The VIA Metropolitan Transit board voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with putting a sales tax reallocation measure on the November ballot despite opposition from Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
Board members voted to provide notice to the City of San Antonio and Bexar County Commissioners Court of their intent to order a referendum on shifting a one-eighth-cent sales and use tax to VIA. That revenue currently goes to fund aquifer protection and linear creekway parks.
VIA leaders say the transit agency needs the additional tax revenue to avoid service cuts and finally fund the transit authority at the level it needs.
“VIA moves people,” VIA board chair Hope Andrade said during the videoconference meeting. “We help bridge the gaps in equity and opportunity that are being exploited by this crisis. COVID-19 shined a light on the true extent of San Antonio’s reliance on the transit system, and made clear that any strategy to address inequity in our community must include VIA and our riders.”
VIA board vice chair Bob Comeaux acknowledged the board did not have local leaders’ support, but said he believed putting the issue to voters was still the right decision.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that our mayor will agree with our efforts to do what we were appointed to do, and that is to provide the best transit system that we can afford,” Comeaux said.
Nirenberg told the Rivard Report in June that because VIA set aside its “VIA Reimagined” plan of expanding transit in San Antonio, reallocating the one-eighth-cent in sales tax no longer applies to the originally proposed idea. Nirenberg reiterated Thursday that he still does not support the measure.
“As we cope with another critical spike of COVID-19 cases, it further illustrates why our
community needs to take a step back to reevaluate our priorities,” Nirenberg said in a statement. “I have likened the trajectory of our city to a simple equation. Transit remains a variable in that equation, but we must talk about the order of operations in the wake of this virus.”
VIA had originally projected it would be short $126 million over the next five years, and shared an updated projection in June of a $111.3 million deficit in five years. But the City chief financial officer’s analysis of VIA’s budget reported that the agency would hit a more manageable budget shortfall of $10.9 million in 2023 and $59.4 million on 2025. The City’s analysis included the $10 million given to VIA annually from the City budget, and that funding will continue, Nirenberg said.
Andrade said that although VIA board members and leaders met with local leaders, they left those discussions unsatisfied. VIA needs to reverse decades of underinvestment and is now “forced to take steps now to ensure lasting change” after VIA was unable to identify an alternative funding source, Andrade said.
“We were not able to secure a workable or responsible plan from city leaders,” she said. “So we must go directly to the people.”
Even if VIA were to win voters’ approval on reallocating the sales tax funding to transit in November, the agency would not be able to start collecting revenue right away. The collection of the one-eighth-cent sales tax for aquifer protection and linear creekway parks is capped by dollar amount and not by time. Because of decreased sales tax revenue in general, the City projects it will reach the maximum amount of sales tax collection next summer. But Andrade argued that waiting for a later election might eliminate the option of reallocating the one-eighth-cent sales tax to transit.
Andrade said the VIA board remains open to “exploring solutions” on how to ensure VIA receives the funding it needs, but that those conversations should have community input as well. Without saying who was involved, Andrade claimed that discussions about how to use the one-eighth-cent sales tax for purposes other than transit “are underway behind closed doors.”
“By asking for the election, we ask that these discussions with other interest groups be brought into the open so that the public can transparently weigh in on the priorities and help decide the role of transit in [an] equity plan,” Andrade said. “We cannot support a plan that takes a step backward for a service as essential as mobility.”
VIA has until Aug. 17 to call for a November election.
“I hope that between now and Aug. 17 we can come to an agreement that addresses the
needs of a community that has been rocked by this pandemic,” Nirenberg said in a statement.