Should the VIA Metropolitan Transit bus service be eliminated in Castle Hills?
This question was the sole subject of last night’s town hall meeting at Castle Hills City Hall. Like the other cities embedded in San Antonio, Castle Hills pays a half-cent sales tax in exchange for VIA bus service. Now some officials and residents are questioning whether that money can be put to better use – specifically for the city’s streets.
“We in the last few years have been looking for acceptable ways and ideas to finance the infrastructure and maintain the streets of our city,” Acting Castle Hills Mayor Timothy A. Howell said. “We have tried committees and door-to-door comments as in our last election and a bond that failed in our recent election.”
Howell wants to do several fact-finding town halls to investigate how the money spent on VIA could be used in other ways. Howell also wants to hear citizen feedback on the proposal before a question is created for this November’s ballot. The town hall gave 20 minutes for VIA to make their case and 20 minutes for a consultant from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts to give alternate options. Council members John Squire, Frank Paul, and Douglas Gregory were present, while Lesley Wenger was absent.
“We want to remain serving the citizens of Castle Hills and those that want to travel in and out of Castle Hills that may not live here but definitely pay either the fare or will spend money in your city and pay sales tax,” VIA senior vice president of public engagement Charles A. Gonzalez said. “You have to take into consideration what is the true cost in the quantity of life, commercial enterprise, and the impact on transportation for citizens and especially VIAtrans citizens.”
If the city stops paying for VIA, all VIA bus stops and shelters will be removed from Castle Hills – unless they are needed for San Antonio service – and VIA will no longer stop in Castle Hills for patrons living in or out of the city.
According to VIA’s website, the bus routes affected by the change would include 2, 97, 534, 550, 551, 602, and 651. VIA’s presentation at the event stated that Castle hills has 84 bus stops which see an average of 901 daily boardings on weekdays. The presentation also stated that VIA has seen a total of 289,834 boardings so far this fiscal year. Additionally, the City of Castle Hills has 59 clients registered for the VIAtrans Service – a curbside service for persons with disabilities. If VIA left, those disabled persons would lose bus access as well.
According to the attending Texas Comptroller consultant, Ty Myrick, Castle Hills has a myriad of options on how they could otherwise use the available half-cent tax. They cannot, however, just redirect the money to street maintenance. Under state law, a city can levy a one percent tax for use on just about anything – which Castle Hills has already used up – and can levy up to two more half-cent taxes on special projects by creating a “municipal development district.” Unfortunately, those projects don’t include street maintenance.
“It really is not designed for building streets or maintaining streets,” Myrick said. “It’s more for other types of community development or other types of infrastructure development that attracts businesses specifically.”
Myrick says the city may be able to use a municipal development district to shift some tax money towards an existing development project – freeing up cash from other sources – but that isn’t a long-term solution. Pulling the plug on VIA would also keep Castle Hills from adding to their existing financial obligation for VIA maintenance, which Gonzalez said now totals $396,742. Council members used the question-and-answer phase to challenge the validity of the figure and Councilman Gregory expressed special displeasure that some of that maintenance fee may go to political lobbying, but the city might still have to pay all the same.
About 35 citizens signed up to speak at the town hall, though not all appeared when called. And while many protested the lack of factual information from VIA – specifically on what would happen to existing bus routes if VIA stopped service – even more citizens urged the council not to stop the service.
“I need the bus service to go to grocery stores such as the H-E-B here on West Avenue, the pharmacist, my doctors that are located inside Castle Hills, and any of the other businesses that I go to,” Patricia Ann Spaeth said. “If you were to stop VIA, myself and many others that patronize the businesses here won’t be able to get there and that will result in lost revenues to your sales taxes.”
“If that bus stops, my husband and I will have to quit our job and find some other place to live,” Tiffany Morris said. “Everyone at Subway, where I work, takes the bus. If you cut that service we have no jobs. That Subway will have to close and move somewhere else because they don’t pay us enough to get cars.”
The fact that bus service impacts local business was a constant theme. Local Burger King franchise owner Robes St. Juste also expressed fear that losing VIA would especially hurt his business.
“It’s been mentioned here a couple of times how much we do rely on VIA to move our employees as well as our customers,” St. Juste said. “If VIA was not here and we had to make the decision today, we would have to think really hard before investing $2 million dollars to put that building there.”
While not all citizens were in favor of VIA, many just wanted more information before making a decision, and there is sure to be at least one more town hall on the subject before the issue is decided. The meeting continued on after reporter Andrew Moore left at 9 p.m. Tuesday night, but by that point no citizen had requested that the bus service be cancelled.
“I think that the citizens of Castle Hills need to make a decision. We need to vote on this issue and get all the information we can, so we appreciate everyone’s input.” Sylvia Gonzales said. “Nothing is carved in stone yet.”
Featured/top image: Citizens address the Castle Hills City Council on the matter of stopping VIA service. Photo by Andrew Moore.