Scott Ball / Rivard Report
A City committee is still undecided on how to improve funding for VIA Metropolitan Transit’s operations after analyzing San Antonio’s infrastructure needs, but the reallocation of public funds to the tune of about $10 million is still an option on the table.
The Advanced Transportation District (ATD) Ad Hoc Committee could not come to a consensus on any proposal presented on Wednesday, so it will reconvene on an undetermined date later this month for more discussion.
Wednesday’s meeting was the fifth for the committee this year. The committee, made up of current and former City and transit agency leaders, has been reviewing VIA’s funding model to determine if the City should reallocate all or part of its take from ATD revenue to VIA. A major reallocation of funds could strengthen San Antonio’s mission to become a more multimodal city, but that would mean cutting back on other critical infrastructure projects like sidewalk and traffic signals.
A one-eighth-cent sales tax from the City provides about $64 million yearly to the ATD fund, resulting in nearly $500 million for transportation-related improvements, traffic safety projects, road expansion, and maintenance since voters approved the district’s creation in 2004. VIA gets half of the revenue, and the rest is split between the City and the Texas Department of Transportation.
VIA gets most of its revenue from the half-cent Metropolitan Transit Authority tax that helped launch VIA’s initial operations in 1977. VIA’s counterparts in Austin, Dallas and Houston each get a full cent.
The current fiscal year 2016 budget for ATD revenue is $16.9 million, with more than $10 million going towards sidewalks and traffic signals. Issues related to sidewalks as well as roads and drainage have been prioritized by citizens through public input processes, and the City plans to propose a large bond issue for such projects in 2017.
The City has identified $1 billion in sidewalk gaps alone, but local officials acknowledge that a bond can only do so much for these and other basic infrastructure needs. The 2017 Municipal Bond is expected to total $750 million.
City staff does not recommend allocating any ATD money because that could eliminate associated projects and staff positions.
But Councilman Rey Saldaña, who co-chairs the committee and originally proposed the ATD reallocation plan, argues that the benefits of an improved transit system would outweigh the cost to other transportation-related initiatives.
“It’s time for the City to put its money where its mouth is,” Saldaña said. “This is an opportunity to finally do what we’ve always talked about.”
VIA could use the extra cash to increase service frequencies, provide faster trips, decrease waiting times and improve transit capacity on major corridors. Such improvements would encourage more people to take mass transit, he said, and enhance citywide connectivity, both of which are goals laid out in the SA2020 and SA Tomorrow visions.
Jeffrey Arndt, president and CEO of VIA, proposed a service plan using $10 million in reallocated ATD money. The plan could improve frequencies on 10 routes and improve travel times and capacities on five major transit corridors. About 60% of VIA’s existing ridership is within a quarter-mile of the proposed service plan, Arndt added.
Under this plan, VIA would use its capital funds to buy 24 new buses to support the improved routes and corridors. VIA would phase-in the route improvements over three fiscal years, starting in 2018.
While the committee agrees that VIA needs to shore up its operations as San Antonio’s population steadily increases, some members are pushing for alternative ways to bolster the transit agency’s revenue stream. Former City Manager Alex Briseño, who serves on the committee, suggested another look at reallocating $3 million in debt service from when the City used ATD funds to push up installation of its Traffic Signal System Modernization project. These debt service payments are due to end in FY 2017.
“We’re just looking for alternatives that may free up resources,” Briseño added.
Other committee members as well as City staff said the City should consider pursuing aid during the 85th Legislative session. Another solution could be to raise VIA’s sales tax to one cent.
The state, however, caps local sales taxes at 8.25%. Income from San Antonio’s sales tax goes to the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone Protection and Pre-K 4 SA program, as well as the state and City’s coffers and the ATD. A half-cent increase to VIA’s MTA sales tax would raise its income by $140 million, City engineer Mike Frisbie told the committee.
“We need more revenue, no doubt about it,” Frisbie said.
Increasing local vehicle registration fees by $10 is yet another option, but raising the sales tax and/or the registration fee would have to be addressed by the Legislature. Jeff Coyle, the city’s intergovernmental relations director, said it’s unlikely that the current Legislature would warm up to any proposal that raises the sales tax ceiling.
“Busting the sales tax cap has been unsuccessful in every attempt,” Coyle said.
Saldaña said he was not surprised that City staff advised against reallocating ATD funds, but that measures to boost VIA’s funding must be determined at the City level.
“We’ve been waiting for Superman to come in from the state and we may wait longer,” he said.
Other committee members such as former Councilwoman Patti Radle (D4) said it’s a challenge to balance VIA’s needs with infrastructure issues.
“Sidewalks (are) such a tremendous challenge,” Radle said. One one hand you need them to connect bus stops and bus stations, but increased service frequency and shorter waits could help bulk up job security and other benefits for citizens and VIA customers.
Committee member Darryl Byrd, founder of ULTRAte Consulting and former SA2020 CEO, said whatever the City decides to do with this money, it must be effective and beneficial to the community.
“Impact is essential,” he added.
Following more than an hour of discussion, the group was no closer to a consensus. Committee member Vic Boyer said he likes the idea of talking with local legislators about how VIA’s funding source can be supplemented. However, he added, that more in-depth, local discussion was necessary and that this decision must not be rushed.
“It may be a good idea to bring our legislative delegation down for a discussion. There hasn’t been a lot of talk on transit in the legislature for years,” Boyer added.
City staff and VIA will refine their research for the next meeting, whose recommendation would then go to the City Council.
“We’ll all have a better sense on being on the same page, a better sense of impact then,” Saldaña said.
Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni said the committee’s focus would be one of many topics at a special meeting, where the Council will discuss priorities for the FY 2017 budget. The budget goal-setting session will take place at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on June 8.
Top image: A VIA bus exits Centro Plaza. Photo by Scott Ball.