Imagine San Antonio in 2040. At the current pace of growth, average commute times will increase by 75% and half of San Antonio’s roadways will face gridlock traffic congestion. Our daily lives, in other words, will come to a screeching halt and the connectivity that we take for granted now will end. That’s not good for our economic, environmental, or mental health.
Luckily, we’ve taken inventory of our challenges and have developed solutions to tackle our transportation woes through SA Tomorrow.
The plan includes guidance on policy priorities and code updates and tells us where we should put our money to get the biggest bang for our buck. Most importantly, the plan places a laser focus on multimodal projects that will help us manage our growth by refocusing our efforts on moving people, as well as moving cars.
Although City Council took an important first step Thursday when they voted to approve the adoption of SA Tomorrow, which includes the Multimodal Transportation Plan, we still have a lot of work to do.
For starters, we need to remember that transportation reform in San Antonio cannot ignore the transit-dependent rider in pursuit of the transit-choice rider.
Consider the story of Irasema Cavazos, an Eastside neighbor who lives close to the AT&T Center. When Irasema, now retired, was working as an elderly caretaker in the Medical Center, she would take three buses to get to her final destination. Her commute, just one way, could take up to two-and-one-half hours. In order to get to work on time, she would wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning and not make it back home until well past 8:30 p.m.
Today, Irasema helps organize domestic workers who face the same public transportation challenges in getting to their Northside jobs from the Southside of San Antonio. Citing lack of service frequency and delayed busses, Irasema wants nothing short of a complete overhaul of the public transit system.
Her pain isn’t caused by booming development that leads to gridlocked traffic. Instead, her neighborhood is one of many that faces disinvestment, making reliable public transportation inconsistent even as others around her continue to depend on public transit for their livelihoods. She deserves certainty and consistency, a basic level of service that VIA is unable to provide because it is underfunded.
VIA receives most of its revenue from a half-cent sales tax, while most other Texas cities enjoy a whole cent. VIA has done a stellar job with the funds that they’ve been given, but the fact remains that it’s not enough.
Irasema, and thousands of San Antonians just like her, deserve better.
That’s why I am grateful that Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) initiated the serious discussion about VIA funding through the Advanced Transportation District (ATD) ad-hoc committee. We must reassess current funding sources to ensure proper transportation funding, and we can certainly begin with giving VIA additional funding.
However, public trust in San Antonio – especially regarding transportation – is fragile, and I believe it would be a mistake to move forward with a transfer from the voter-approved ATD fund without clear consensus that such a transfer is legal and consistent with voter intent.
In 1977, San Antonio decided to go halfway on public transit by funding VIA with a half cent of the sales tax. People have called this a mistake. While it means that we didn’t plan our community accordingly, it also has enabled some of the signature initiatives that are vital for our city: a world-renowned watershed protection program that preserves critical land at pennies-on-the-dollar, a linear creekway system that is as extensive as any in the U.S., and a citywide preschool program that is being replicated across the country.
SA Tomorrow is trying to address the planning issue. I absolutely support the objective to bring new money into VIA, but I have reservations about transferring voter-approved ATD funds. We should seek unequivocal legal guidance and public reassurance before completing such a reallocation. In the meantime, we should set aside General Fund dollars as a fail-safe option, giving working people who rely on public transportation some relief now.
That’s also why I asked staff to provide alternatives – including a permanent set-aside from the City’s General Fund – that City Council can designate to improve VIA bus service for routes that serve our city’s most transit-dependent riders. This much is clear: We must improve funding for VIA as a basic, citywide transportation priority, and we must do it now.
To build and maintain a transportation system that can serve everyone, transportation funding cannot be a zero-sum game – especially not in a city that is projected to see such growth.
Two years ago, in the wake of the streetcar, I called for a comprehensive transportation plan, one that incorporates pedestrians, bikes, buses, cars, and rail. Today, we have that plan. For us to deal with the impending need of the next 25 years, we need an ambitious, voter-approved transportation package that moves major dollars and identifies new revenue streams. Identifying those revenue streams should be part of our 2017 State Legislative agenda.
Like cities around this state and the nation, it is time our development policy aligns with our vision for a more sustainable San Antonio for the 1.5 million people who already reside here, along with the million-plus new neighbors who will call our city home by 2040.
With the 2017 bond program on the horizon, the discussion about how to properly fund transit couldn’t have come at a better time. We now have an opportunity to make a major investment in transportation for the future, and we should not let the chance pass us by.
SA Tomorrow is here.
Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). File photo by Scott Ball.