Beginning with early voting and continuing through the May 9 election date, San Antonio’s registered voters will cast votes that will have an impact on our city. Not only will voters decide on which candidates will lead San Antonio, they will decide whether to amend our City Charter; San Antonio’s equivalent to the United States Constitution, and in the process either handcuff or free newly elected officials to set and implement critical transportation policies needed to move our city forward.
I am referring specifically to Charter Amendment No. 1 (not to be confused with Proposition 1 for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program), which calls for a public vote on the future of transportation in our city. The Centro Alliance board voted unanimously to oppose this amendment. Using the City’s Charter to address transportation policy is bad public policy. Using the City Charter to isolate one transportation project to the exclusion of others that are on drawing boards today or could be in the future is more bad policy. We all learned at any early age, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Hindsight is always 20/20 and perhaps streetcar was the wrong project at the wrong time rolled out to the community in the wrong way. But let’s not buy into the opposition argument that VIA Metropolitan Transit, the City, and the County were bent on jamming streetcar down the throats of the voters because they had money to spend and a limited window in which to spend it. Judge the project if you want, but don’t question the motivation. Let’s give our public sector partners more credit than that.
San Antonio has real transportation problems that need to be solved and we need the public sector to show leadership and develop strategies to diversify our transit system. That’s the job we elected them to do. That doesn’t mean that we will always agree with them. The recent public outcry over transportation network companies Uber and Lyft is a great example. But are we going to amend the City Charter every time we don’t like a decision made by our elected public officials or if significant dollars are involved? What’s next: arts and culture projects or social services programs? The police and fire contracts will have a huge financial impact on taxpayers for years to come, but voters have entrusted their elected leaders to approve these contracts, and rightly so.
Proponents of Charter Amendment No. 1 have picked one transit option, rail, that could provide an alternative to VIA’s current bus service, used predominantly by those most in need of public transit. This segment of our community deserves transit options just as much as those who live in Stone Oak and the farther reaches of San Antonio where growth is rampant and roads can’t be built fast enough to meet that growth. What about people who move to San Antonio from cities that have light rail and want that more urban experience here?
The individuals that led the opposition to streetcars have taken control of this issue while conveniently ignoring the high costs and disruptive nature of road projects that will never meet traffic demand unless there is an alternative to curb that demand. Streetcar was pay-as-you-go and there was still an outcry from these individuals. But in a survey conducted during the streetcar debate, nearly 50% of respondents from most areas of the city agreed that San Antonio needs a modern transit system with multiple options. Jeff Judson, in his recent commentary, lambasted the cost of rail projects and their impact on businesses while remaining silent and ignoring those same issues on road projects. To support his argument, Judson cited the cost of rail per mile in 1981 as compared to what it would be today. Well, imagine if our elected officials had been bold years ago and brought light rail to San Antonio back then. We’d be talking about what a bargain we'd got.
There is no resounding call to bring road projects to a public vote, or to amend the City Charter to require it. It's a mentality that we can build roads wider and wider to deal with growth and congestion. But nearly 80% of respondents to the survey indicated a desire to vote on all transportation projects. So do they get to vote on roads? This charter amendment and others like it will lead to the Californication, of policy by ballot, of San Antonio. Even current candidates for public office, while citing the need for a public vote on projects that require indebtedness, have not weighed in on this selective focus on rail and have come out in favor of Charter Amendment No. 1.
It’s one thing to put bond projects that will create indebtedness to a vote of the people. It’s quite another matter to place individual projects, whether transportation related or not, on a charter amendment. This is not an issue about indebtedness. It’s about whether light rail can help solve our transportation issues. We should leave that decision to the officials we put in office.
Centro Alliance is not looking for a charter amendment to balance the scales. We don’t believe that transportation policy should be addressed in the City Charter any more than the charter should tell us whether we’re allowed to drink sugary soda. Nor do we agree that all transportation projects should go to a vote. We want a transportation policy that is not an assault on the redevelopment of the urban core. What the opposition has done in securing this charter amendment language is just that: an attack on the heart of our city.
In order to have a vibrant core, we have to make it convenient for residents, workers, and visitors to move into, around, and through the center city. Transit policy needs to come from thoughtful analysis and planning, which the City is undertaking through the SA Tomorrow process. It shouldn’t come as a knee-jerk, emotional reaction to streetcar. We urge residents to vote “no” on Charter Amendment No. 1.
*Featured/top image: Drivers lined up outside the Aztec Theater for the inaugural run of The E from Via Metropolitan Transit. Photo by Kristian Jaime Photography.