Bexar County commissioners will start considering whether the county can take over funding the City of San Antonio’s linear creekway trails program when budget talks begin this year, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.
In an interview Tuesday, Wolff told the Rivard Report that County funding could potentially fill the gap left by the loss of a one-eighth-cent sales tax that currently funds aquifer protection and linear trails. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg is pushing to shift that tax to VIA Metropolitan Transit as part of some local leaders’ vision for a more effective transportation network to knit together an increasingly sprawling city.
“We have a number of creek and river projects that need to be done,” Wolff said. “So we can’t do anything about it now, but we will start debating the budget sometime in the spring or the summer, and we will be talking about our comprehensive capital projects. And in that, we will be considering some of the creeks that tie to other projects.”
Since the program began in 2000, voters have approved nearly $190 million in funding for the linear creekway trails. As of September, the City had spent $113 million and built 69 miles of trails mostly along Salado and Leon creeks and the Medina River, with funding committed for another 50 miles.
Wolff was not able to say how much in funding the County could provide to continue the trails program after collection of the City sales tax ends in 2021.
“We’ll have to see if we get [Commissioners] Court support to take it,” Wolff said. “But we can’t fund anything now – we’re in the middle of a [fiscal] year – so it would have to be for next year’s budget.”
Wolff spoke about the funding five days after Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert wrote an open letter calling for transparency on discussions of the county funding the program. Calvert’s letter stated that County officials are considering $200 million in funding; Wolff on Tuesday called that number “inaccurate.” Efforts to reach Calvert for comment Tuesday were not successful.
The shift in focus to Bexar County comes after the San Antonio River Authority last year rejected a proposal to increase its property tax rate and pay for projects along local waterways, including trails. At Nirenberg’s urging, San Antonio Water System leaders are considering whether SAWS can replace funding for the portion of the sales tax that goes toward aquifer protection.
The deal-making underway among local government is all about shifting funding to support a joint City-County transportation plan known as ConnectSA. Nirenberg and Wolff are driving forces behind ConnectSA, which calls for more frequent bus service, dedicated lanes for bikes and scooters, and an expansion of the City’s sidewalks and creekway trails.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Nirenberg called the trails “overwhelming community-wide priorities” and said he’s “grateful for the collaborative spirit that’s happening with how we advance and complete the creekway system.”
Any shift of the sales tax to VIA would have to be approved by voters. Nirenberg and City leaders are planning to put the issue on the November ballot.
“The greenway trails and the linear creekways are a fundamental component of the transportation system that we hope to gain public approval in November,” Nirenberg said, adding that there “is no scenario that is or will be considered that does not include completion of the linear creekway system.”
“I can’t say that emphatically enough,” Nirenberg said. “Its’ the most popular infrastructure program this community conducts.”
Many trail advocates oppose a shift in the funding source. In November, the Linear Creekways Parks Advisory Board, made up of volunteers appointed by City Council to advise the City on the trails, passed a resolution opposing changes to the sales tax. At its meeting Tuesday, board Chair Greg Hammer said he has never heard these details directly from officials.
“I think it’s odd that City and County leaders are discussing this behind closed doors, apparently, without consulting the advisory board that the City established to advise on the direction of this program,” Hammer said.
“Given the opportunity to choose between transportation funding and these environmental initiatives and, frankly, alternative transportation initiatives … I’m confident the voters would choose aquifer protection and linear creekways,” Hammer said, citing the overwhelming majority of voters that have approved the programs over the past 20 years.
Many environmentalists are calling for a proposition on the November ballot that asks voters to choose between transportation and the current system of aquifer protection and linear creeks.
But that’s unlikely to happen, with City attorneys saying state law requires elections to be yes-or-no propositions, not either-or propositions.
Hammer also voiced concern about the trails being funded through bond issues, which require voter approval for specific projects.
“That can be a tough sell,” Hammer said.
Wolff voiced a similar concern about bonds, since voting is based on a predetermined number of projects.
“The problem with that is things change,” Wolff said, citing as an example the $500 million in funding the County took on for flood control projects.
Wanting more flexibility to adapt to changes in local drainage systems, the County used a different debt instrument known as a certificate of obligation to finance those projects. Wolff on Tuesday floated the idea of using certificates of obligation for creekway programs.
Another issue is who would do the actual work of buying land and building trails. Most trail advocates want to see the program continued under the more than 110 City employees who currently work on the system. The staff includes people who work on design, land acquisition, bidding, trail stewardship, and Park Police.
Wolff couldn’t say at this point who would oversee such work, though he dismissed the idea of the County doing trail “maintenance.”
Nirenberg said he supports keeping the management of the City’s trails program within the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, though it sounds like the details aren’t clear.
“I don’t know exactly where this will end up, but I think we should be open to that approach because the City’s management of the trails system has been superb and we should welcome any way we can collaborate to get it done,” Nirenberg said.