I don’t believe the poll results presented by ConnectSA Tri-Chair Henry Cisneros to City Council last week that showed 65% of likely voters “definitely” or “probably” support shifting a one-eighth cent sales tax away from aquifer protection and the city’s greenway trail system to support expanding VIA Metropolitan Transit service.

Only 26% of those polled said they definitely or probably would oppose the measure. If true, the November ballot initiative would win by a landslide. Of course, it’s not true.

Don’t get me wrong. I want voters to approve new investment in the city’s badly underfunded bus system. I want to be one of the riders who finds San Antonio’s bus service so improved it’s impossible to resist as a mass transit option offering convenience, comfort, safety, and a way to address worsening air quality, traffic congestion, and carbon emissions.

Full stop: I also want my taxes to continue protecting the Edwards Aquifer through the purchase of development rights over the recharge and contributing zones, and I want to see the Howard Peak Greenway Trail System completed in the shortest possible time and, in the coming years, well-maintained by the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.

If you are like me, you are not fully convinced that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other advocates for the sales tax shift have perfected a credible plan for guaranteeing those protections, which would give voters a clear conscience this November to approve expanding VIA service. Credit Nirenberg and the SA Connect leadership with the right vision, which is why voters relaxed term limits when Mayor Phil Hardberger was still in office in 2008. We now give officeholders enough longevity to think long-term, however challenging the politics of any given issue.

Former HUD Secretary and ConnectSA Tri-Chair Henry Cisneros (center) presents the proposed ConnectSA plan to City Council during B Session on Wednesday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It’s going to take two things for the mayor and his team to make this work. One is a convincing formula supported by City Council, Bexar County commissioners, the San Antonio Water System board, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority to fund aquifer protection and the trail system.

Second is a strong campaign led by a group of individuals with high standing in the community who can appeal to key demographics: the business community; those who support sensible implementation of the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan; and everyone who wants a more sustainable, navigable city where daily dependence on the automobile is reduced. Buy-in from young professionals and students old enough to vote will be essential to overcome voters who will never ride a bus and only vote their own personal interests.

Think the 2012 campaign for Pre-K 4 SA, which included co-chairmen with impeccable credentials: Charles Butt – the chairman and CEO of H-E-B, the greatest philanthropist in city history, and one its most visionary business leaders – and retired Gen. Joe Robles, the highly-respected CEO of USAA at the time.

Finding individuals (women this time, please) of that stature and recognizing the need to expand the leadership group to include at least one accomplished millennial and one working-class veteran bus rider will broaden the campaign’s appeal.

Why don’t I believe, as Cisneros told City Council members in the Wednesday briefing, that voters already support the sales tax shift to VIA? Simple: I believe those who commissioned the poll wanted a positive outcome to generate support for their initiative when the purpose of a legitimate poll is to measure likely voter sentiment at a moment in time. The goal is not to deliver desired results.

Here are some key sentences from the Rivard Report article written by Reporter Jackie Wang who attended Wednesday’s City Council briefing:

The poll did not specify that the one-eighth-cent-tax [for enhanced VIA funding] would come from the aquifer protection program, though Cisneros said that there was support for that reallocation in separate polling. The number of residents surveyed and how they were chosen was not made available on Wednesday.

The citywide poll was conducted by the NRDC Action Fund, which is affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a legitimate environmental organization but one that would not be considered neutral on the question at hand.

Also, the poll was conducted in September, when the public was even more uncertain about the various proposals to find new funding sources for aquifer protection and the trail system. In polling terms, that was a long time ago and cannot be considered a measure of current voter sentiment, even if you buy the way the questions were asked.

Again, from Wang’s reporting:

The poll from the NRDC Action Fund asked San Antonio residents how they would vote on “a measure to fund transportation and transit projects that decrease traffic congestion, increase pedestrian safety, and improve bus service for San Antonio by redirecting a 1/8th cent sales tax to those projects.”

We at the Rivard Report believe that elected leaders and citizens in San Antonio deserve more accurate and timely data on public policy issues of major importance. We have plans to help make that happen, and Monday we will share a significant news story that should alter the local landscape on measuring true voter sentiment. Don’t miss our announcement.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.