For the first time since Mayor Ivy Taylor announced her candidacy for a full term, all four major candidates appeared on stage together at a public forum, what all agreed will be the first of many such events in the coming weeks throughout the city.
The four candidates met at the downtown Plaza Club Wednesday at a luncheon forum titled, "The Future of Transportation in the Alamo City." The event was organized by the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council and Lone Star Rail District.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, and former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson joined Mayor Taylor for the 75-minute forum, which covered a wide range of transportation topics, from the proposed Lone Star Rail commuter train service linking San Antonio to Austin to the city's growing highway congestion, the failed streetcar project, the lack of complete streets in the urban core to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians, and the coming May 9 charter amendment that could define the City's future participation in any new light rail and streetcar initiatives.
There were substantive differences among the four candidates, but no fireworks until Adkisson launched into an animated dismissal of the Texas Legislature and its failure to index gas taxes as "spineless."
"Sen. John Carona (former chair of the Senate Transportation Committee) had the guts to say ... a long time ago that the most fiscally conservative and transparent way to finance our highways into the next 20 years is raising and indexing the gas tax," Adkisson said. "But guess what? They don't have the guts to do it."
His assertion drew a remark from moderator Robert Rivard as Van de Putte and Villarreal, both veteran legislators, looked on.
"Well. Hi, Tommy," Van de Putte said. "If you hadn't noticed, yesterday was my last day in the Legislature and I'm coming home to San Antonio."
"I don't blame you," Adkisson replied.
The audience included a number of VIA Metro Transit board trustees and executives, including CEO Jeff Arndt, but none spoke at the event.
The candidates did differ on the issues. Adkisson is famously anti-toll roads.
"Tommy, do you have an opinion on toll roads?" Rivard asked.
The question brought laughter as Adkisson rose to the occasion with a spirited willingness to engage in political fights when the issue merits. No one else on stage expressed much enthusiasm for the much-debated toll road option on Hwy. 281 north of Loop 1604, but Van de Putte said, "Personally, I don't like to pay, but I like what they (tolls) can buy you – and that is saving time."
Time is money in terms of economic productivity, but it's also the "human cost," she said. "When you're stuck in traffic, that's an hour you're not with your family or doing things in this community."
Mayor Taylor defended her decision to withdraw the City's support for the streetcar project, diplomatically criticizing VIA's failure to build broader public support, while Villarreal said the street project could have been a success if it had developed as a limited public-private project that ran from the Pearl down through Southtown, and later developed extended lines.
"Property owners who brought that idea forward said they'd be willing to bring (their) own capital and (their) own private talent to help make this happen," said Villarreal. "(The streetcar plan) grew and expanded as soon as it became more of a government-driven idea and attempted to solve multiple problems. A different version – well defined, smaller, something that can be tested – I see that this (streetcar) idea could happen."
Mayor Taylor also said she is confident the charter amendment ballot language on light rail and streetcars won't handcuff future City Councils, but Van de Putte said she feared the ballot language was too broad and could be used by anti-light rail groups to challenge any multi-modal transportation initiatives.
Everyone agrees the road to Austin and back is a miserable experience and all expressed support for Lone Star Rail passenger service. Mayor Taylor said San Antonio has not joined Austin and other cities along the I-35 route in agreeing to establish tax increment financing districts to fund its share of the cost because the numbers don't work. She said the City has been unable to identity a suitable funding source or mechanism, while the other candidates expressed the view that a financing mechanism has to be found and not enough has been done to identify possible options.
Another point of agreement was the continuance of the comprehensive planning process, initiated by Mayor Taylor in August 2014, that includes a long term Comprehensive Plan (branded as COMPplan2040 and SA Tomorrow on Facebook), Transportation Plan, and Sustainability Plan. Committees, working groups, advisory groups, and institutes have been tasked to come up with frameworks and goals. The community input process is expected to begin in March.
"As someone who has been trained as an urban planner, I have been thrilled to have the opportunity during my time as mayor to lead City Council and the community in setting up the framework. Frankly, that's one of the reasons why I reconsidered and decided to go ahead and throw my name in (the mayoral race) because this is one of the projects that is so important and won't be finished (before May)," she said. "It's just the beginning. It's so important that we not just pat ourselves on the back when we get a nice document and nice maps at the end of an 18-month long planning period. At the end of the day, that has to translate into us putting our money where our mouths are."
Candidates agreed that the City has plenty of plans and initiatives "collecting dust" on a planner's shelf and, if elected on May 9, each committed to putting action behind the 2040 Comprehensive Plan during their term.
*Featured/top image: (From left) Mike Villarreal, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Tommy Adkisson participate in the mayoral candidate forum at the Plaza Club on Wednesday. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
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