The aftershocks were still being felt at week’s end after Monday’s announcement by Mayor Ivy Taylor that the City was withdrawing its financial and political support for VIA Metropolitical Transit’s streetcar project. VIA Chairman Alex Briseño surrounded himself with dozens of transit workers at a Friday press conference, where he reminded the city that the only long-term solution to growth, sprawl, and congestion lies in building multimodal transportation alternatives.
“We were disappointed that we weren’t able to communicate effectively the message of the value of the streetcar project,” Briseño said. “We still think streetcar is a good project. We plan to work collaboratively with other entities, like the City, like the County…because we still have regional issues.”
Briseño flatly rejected calls by some streetcar opponents to transfer the project’s $92 million in Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) funds to finance expansion of Tx. 281 north of Loop 1604 or to pay for any other highway construction. He recommitted VIA to SmartMove, its five-year plan, and the Long Range Comprehensive Transit Plan.
“The good news is that $92 million was committed by TXDOT to do mass transportation projects in Bexar County, and to support the SmartMove program and the Long Range Plan,” Briseño said. “We have about $300 million dollars worth of unfunded projects in that 2035 Plan. We’ve directed staff to come back with a plan to prioritize, to allocate that $92 million to support unfunded projects in the plan.”
That could include expansion of the Primo bus service, he said.
“The issues that have occurred recently have increased the awareness of the challenges we face in the future with a million new people moving to Bexar County, and bringing with them 500,000 new cars, and we need to figure out collectively what we are going to do with those people and what are we going to do with those cars,” he said.
Even as Briseño spoke, political observers eyed next Wednesday’s City Council B Session, when City Clerk Leticia Vacek and City Attorney Robbie Greenblum will present Council members with contradictory legal opinions on how they should treat a petition drive by anti-streetcar forces to place a charter amendment on the November ballot that, if successful, would block any future rail projects unless first approved by voters.
Organizers presented the City with a total of 28,556 signatures seeking a City Charter change that would require voters to approve any future rail projects, but even before Vacek’s office began verifying signatures, Greenblum said streetcar opponents had failed to have petitioners sign and attach circulator sheets that make it easier to track and verify the signature gathering process. That omission, he said, rendered the signatures invalid.
Lawyers for streetcar opponents disagreed and said the circulator pages were not legally required in a local petition drive. The outcome hangs in the balance since Vacek found 12,138 signatures valid with circulator pages, and 8,861 legitimate signatures without attached circulator pages. Added together, the two sums give streetcar opponents the necessary 20,000 votes to place the charter reform measure on the November ballot. Disqualify the 8,861 signatures and opponents fall well short of the necessary minimum and would have only 10 days to return to the field to make up the difference.
In a July 30 memo to city staff and Council, Vacek stated that she had sought a legal opinion from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which concluded that state election code does not require the circulator pages. That doesn’t fully address the question.
As tensions mounted inside City Hall this week, Greenblum issued his own memo the next day to city staff and Council, citing Section 37 of the City Charter, which calls for circulator pages in any petition drives. Greenblum asserted that the Charter is not out of step with state law.
City Council members face stark choices Wednesday, and no matter what is decided, the matter could end up in court with increasingly polarized factions digging in for a protracted legal fight even after officials agreed to stop the streetcar project.
The Council is most likely to oppose any ballot measure that would undermine its authority to govern without having every major issue subjected to a petition drive or popular vote. Rejecting the 8,861 signatures probably will lead streetcar opponents to seek an expedited court hearing to force the city to accept the signatures. Even then, were voters to approve such a measure in a November vote, City and VIA officials would probably treat the vote as non-binding and superceded by state law granting VIA right-of-way access for transit development and operations. That, too, could provoke a lawsuit.
The Council also could decide to allow the measure on the ballot and hope to defeat it in November. But a Council majority is more likely to conclude that defeating the measure would be an uphill battle and further divide the community in the coming months. Rejecting the results of a popular vote, regardless of the legalities, would further antagonize the opposition.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the leading advocate of the streetcar project over the last five years, reluctantly appeared alongside Mayor Taylor at the Monday announcement and announced that Bexar County would instruct its representation on the VIA board to join with the City is bringing the project to a halt. In return, he hopes Council takes action that helps his own political position. Wolff faces a re-election challenge in November from former City Councilman Carlton Soules, an ardent streetcar foe, and is more likely to prevail if the issue is not on the ballot.
The third choice for Council, of course, is to seek a political compromise before matters escalate further. Mayor Taylor pledged that any future rail projects would be brought before voters before they were approved by Council. An ordinance guaranteeing that should be sufficient to allow streetcar foes to declare victory and forego a charter reform election. The charter itself is badly outdated on several counts and streetcar opponents could be invited into the process to help formulate charter updates, which could be put before voters sometime after a full-term mayor is elected next May.
Such a compromise would clear the way for the City to craft a comprehensive transportation plan and work with VIA, the County, and other regional entities to hit the reset button and bring voters a new approach to expanding mass transportation options in the metropolitan area. It might even be possible to give voters different plans to choose from in search of a community consensus.
* Featured/top image: Streetcar graphic by Jason Rodriguez / courtesy VIA.