As elected, business, and community leaders reviewed results of a new local poll released Tuesday, the three-pronged issue of how best to allocate sales tax revenue drew the most notice.
The local sales tax can’t pay for the City of San Antonio’s prekindergarten program, aquifer protection program, and improve the local bus services all at once, but these proposals received overwhelming approval from area voters in the Bexar Facts/KSAT/Rivard Report Poll.
Can San Antonio have it all? Mayor Ron Nirenberg has said yes – it’s not a zero sum game.
In the poll, 80 percent of voters said they support extending funding for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP), 68 percent supported Pre-K 4 SA, and 64 percent of voters said they want to fund mass transit reliability. When voters were asked to prioritize that spending, just 7 percent chose transit as their top priority.
But unlike protecting the Edwards Aquifer, sales tax is the only mechanism to fund transportation operations under state law, Nirenberg said.
“I think [the poll] reinforces what we’ve heard in nearly every neighborhood and community meeting that we’ve been in which is that San Antonio residents are tired of congestion and want a comprehensive solution for transportation,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “It means that we’re on the right track. I’ve spent my entire career in City Hall fighting for aquifer protection.”
Nirenberg said his goal now is to find funding to continue the EAPP, through which the City preserves land over and upstream of the Edwards Aquifer, the main area’s water source.
“That’s the plan that we’re looking to solidify before we go to the voters,” he said. “… We’re working collaboratively on that right now [internally at the City and SAWS] and it also includes conversations with the environmental and aquifer protection community.”
Nirenberg said that the funding and implementation plan will start to take shape in the next couple of months. City Council is expected to be briefed on a funding plan and structure on Feb. 19.
The one-eighth-cent sales tax for Pre-K 4 SA, the successful City-operated program, is slated for renewal in May, with City Council slated to vote Thursday on placing it on the ballot. Nirenberg wants a separate one-eighth-cent to increase the frequency of VIA Metropolitan Transit buses to take the place on the November ballot that aquifer protection has successfully won for two decades. Meanwhile, Nirenberg and other officials are working on a plan to sustain aquifer protection by using funding from the San Antonio Water System.
Redirecting that sales tax to VIA is a critical component to implement ConnectSA, a multimodal transportation plan and nonprofit of the same name.
“ConnectSA conducted 78 community meetings over the past year, talking with San Antonians from every corner of our city. Their message was consistent and clear: they want solutions to our city’s tremendous growth and traffic congestion. The Bexar Facts poll reflects what we heard,” ConnectSA Executive Director Shannon Perez said in an emailed statement. “They want to invest in choices that move San Antonio forward.”
ConnectSA is about more than adding buses. The plan, still in draft form, looks at integrating almost all types of transit – except rail – including 200 miles of sidewalks, 40 miles of “micromobility” lanes for bikes and scooters, a universal app to pay for transportation fees, and an advanced rapid transit corridor (long buses traveling on dedicated, priority lanes) from South Loop 410 through downtown and north to Loop 1604.
A poll conducted by the NRDC Action Fund in September found similar support for transit (65 percent) when it asked how they would vote on “a measure to fund transportation and transit projects that decrease traffic congestion, increase pedestrian safety, and improve bus service for San Antonio” by redirecting a one-eighth-cent sales tax to those projects.
The nonpartisan Bexar Facts/KSAT/Rivard Report Poll asked about “increasing the frequency of buses and making public transportation more reliable.”
The results weren’t especially surprising, said Henry Flores, professor emeritus in the political science department at St. Mary’s University.
The aquifer has been treasured by residents for decades, pre-K has proven results, and “no one has ever been satisfied with the public transportation we’ve had here,” Flores said.
People won’t be voting on a ballot for one out of three the way that they did in the survey, he said, acknowledging that the poll presented something of a false choice.
Will voters know the history of the one-eighth-cent tax they are voting on – or that aquifer protection is being executed with another pot of money from SAWS ?
“Unlikely,” Flores said. “Generally, [ballot] propositions are written in such a way that they don’t make the ingredients of the sausage very clear to the voters. They don’t know the nitty-gritty of the political manipulations that could affect the outcome of the policy at the end. Voters often really don’t know what they’re voting for or … against.”
However, the poll results sends a clear message that voters want to see the aquifer equation solved, he added.
The poll gives policy makers valuable guidance on the consensus of the public, he said. “They’re not guessing [as much].”
But therein lies the danger of polls in general, said VIA board Chair Rey Saldaña, who served four terms on City Council.
“A poll is very good at telling you what the politically correct decision is,” Saldaña said. “What it doesn’t always tell you is what the right decision is.”
There’s broad support for aquifer protection – “and there absolutely should be,” Saldaña said, but the sales tax is the only way to improve San Antonio’s bus system and tackle both poverty and economic segregation. While VIA currently gets a half-cent of local sales tax, transit systems in other large municipalities get the whole penny.
“The best way to connect a disconnected city is to properly fund a transportation system,” he said.
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), who represents the largely conservative far Northeast Side, said the poll results tell him that the voters should be able to decide what is funded through the sales tax. “I think that’s the most transparent way of doing it.”
However, that may not be legal.
“Unless specifically required by statute, elections must be presented as yes or no propositions, so it is not possible to hold an election that asks voters to choose between options on the same ballot,” City Attorney Andy Segovia previously stated in an emailed response to that proposal.
Perry said he’ll be voting “no” on placing Pre-K 4 SA on the May ballot when Council votes on Thursday. District 10 residents also are concerned that shifting aquifer protection to SAWS will eventually mean higher water bills, Perry said, “and that impacts those in poverty more.”
If the mayor wants VIA funding on the November ballot, he added, “I’m not sure everybody on City Council is on board yet.”
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Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she was glad to see the three issues side-by-side in the poll to get a sense of the community’s priorities.
“We need to stop congestion, absolutely,” Viagran said. “But we also need to have the water for this growing city for our future.”
She, too, has concerns about the cost to SAWS customers. “I don’t know how we would make it whole without increasing rates.”
For Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the most important question and answer on the poll was how do people feel about San Antonio and the direction that we’re heading? “Everything spins off of that,” he said.
More than 40 percent of those polled think Bexar County and the City of San Antonio are generally moving in the right direction, while less than 25 percent think the region is on the “wrong track.” Additionally, at least 70 percent of voters said it was a good or excellent place to live and start a business, according to the data.
“That means that there is a real good feeling about our community and they support the things we do,” Wolff said.
Asked if he thinks voters will see the November ballot as a choice between transit and protecting the aquifer, Wolff said they will see what they need.
“We’re all insiders – me, [the media], City Council,” he said. “… We all run around here chewing on each other and the public doesn’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to us, but they know [funding VIA] will have an impact on traffic and climate … and they know we need to do something different today.
“They get it.”