Streetcar rendering courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

For the past year, much discussion has ensued regarding the VIA Transit Board of Trustees’s funding of the so-called streetcar project. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fiscal conservative who was originally opposed to the idea of a streetcar, because of the price tag alone.

After more research, and realizing the vast majority of all mass-transit systems, good and bad, are subsidized, I became a supporter of the streetcar project. If for no other reason than we are virtually the last major metropolitan city in this country that does not have such a mass-transit system available to commuters. As unique as San Antonio is as a city, I do not think this should be an area where we set ourselves apart from progress in the 21st century, at a time when vehicle transportation congestion will inevitably worsen as we continue to grow.

While the plan itself is modest in scale – in terms of route lines, not expense – the reality is the system must start somewhere. But without beginning at all, there will be no room for improvement for a mass-transit scheme that by contrast to other cities of similar stature, San Antonio falls far behind at the national level. Perhaps most importantly, as it relates to San Antonians, the plan will reduce bus traffic downtown by 60 percent.

Without going into the reasoning further, however, the debate is over, because the issue has already been decided by the VIA Transit Board. The discussion persists only because two billionaires who are not from San Antonio or even Texas are using San Antonio voters to meddle in local politics to achieve a national objective.

Relevant Law

Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.
Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

VIA is governed by an eleven-member board of trustees. VIA is a metropolitan transit authority created according to Article 1118x of the Texas civil statutes, superseded by Chapter 451 Texas Transportation Code, to provide public transportation services within the designated boundaries.

A confirmation election was held in the majority of Bexar County on November 8, 1977, and voters approved the creation and funding of VIA Metropolitan Transit through a one-half cent sales tax to be levied in San Antonio and seven other incorporated municipalities. The same sales tax money that is being used to fund the streetcar project.

  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.135(a) the VIA Transit board “shall adopt a strategic plan that establishes the authority’s mission and goals.  The plan must set policies and service priorities to guide the authority in allocating resources.”
  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.135(b)  “The plan must set policies and service priorities to guide the authority in developing a budget and allocating resources.  An authority exercises public and essential governmental functions and is a matter of public necessity.”
  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.052(a)(3), 451.052(b).  “An authority may acquire, construct, develop, own, operate, and maintain a transit authority system and shall determine routes.”
  • Tex. Trans. Code 451.056(a),(d)  “Moreover, the board shall adopt a policy of involving the public in board decisions regarding authority policies.
  • Tex. Trans. Code Sec. 451.138(a)(1),(3) “The policy must ensure the public has an opportunity to comment on board matters before a vote on the matters, and establish a time frame and mechanism for the board to obtain public input throughout the year leading up to decision.”

Streetcar Project Becomes Law

The fact remains that VIA held the necessary public meetings, and public support for passage of the Streetcar Project was overwhelming, but supporters have since gone into hiding since the funding became approved. It’s only now AFTER the funding has been approved that outside special interest has funded an effort to revisit the topic that we’ve seen resistance to this streetcar project take hold. The reality is the streetcar system will be built using existing funds, and since no new tax or tax increase is needed, a referendum is not permitted under Texas state law.

Effectively, since the state legislature has deferred this transit authority to the Via Transit Board, this decision is now law.  The appropriate vehicle for challenging any valid law or decision in this instance, is with the Texas legislature itself. Currently, there is no viable legal vehicle by which to challenge this decision in the courts, while lacking a justiciable case or controversy, or democratically: there is no mechanism in place at the moment to allow for a referendum, city council, or commissioner’s court vote to overturn this decision-making authority.

Opponents of the law would have the public think that if enough people sign the petition to amend the city charter this could somehow reverse the already funded program by purportedly invalidating the authority of the state sanctioned Via Transit Board.

But what the special interest groups are not telling the public is that taxpayers would be responsible for the million dollar bill, if this turns into an actual justiciable controversy to be fought in a courtroom among competing governmental entities.

Without speculating on how this complex conflict of laws analysis may or may not unfold, it’s more than likely that taxpayers would ultimately be responsible for the untold millions of dollars in court costs and expenses associated with litigation to resolve this very issue, in the unlikely event it even gets that far.  As expensive as the already decided streetcar project may be now, it will only be more expensive if this matter reaches this controversial level involving the courts.

As previously mentioned, the decision by the Board has been made to fund the plan to create a streetcar system. Again, the passage of this law or ideology on either side of this equation has nothing to do with the political powers of the legislative bodies of City of San Antonio and Bexar County governance.  To the extent members of these legislative bodies are responsible for fulfilling the state mandated appointments to the Board itself, their accountability ends.

What is this Really All About?

In local San Antonio politics the issue has been hotly contested throughout the past several months. The polling on the issue has itself reflected a public vacillation between support and opposition.  Elected officials campaigning have even changed their position on the matter for apparent political expediency.  The streetcar plan has been used as an ideological masquerade to create a cloud of political chaos through which no apparent resolution could possibly be reached given the structure of the laws at the state level.

The fact remains, no singular elected official at the city or county possesses the ability to alter the course of this issue, notwithstanding whether he or she supports or opposes the plan ideologically.  This author is unaware of any popular vehicle to use to stifle or immediately change the course of the VIA Transit Board, and its governmental authority, without taxpayers incurring an even greater expense/burden from doing so. So why is our local community so intrigued and exhaustively using so much political capital on this already decided matter that will proceed with funding, despite misinformed, after-the-fact ideology?

The Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity

The Koch Brothers and their Americans for Prosperity/Democracy Alliance/Freedom Partners SPAC support many varied causes, but they all have in common their self-interested assets in Koch Industries.  These include oil, energy, chemicals and financial products. They’ve actively lobbied to diminish regulations on potentially poisonous substances (e.g. dioxin, asbestos, benzene), and fought against any restrictions on carbon emissions. Their efforts go further in the financial sector by rebutting financial reform where their interests lie in the derivatives market—the investment vehicles that nearly collapsed the entire banking system, almost bringing this country to its knees in 2008.

David and Charles Koch are two politically active billionaires, each worth approximately $22 billion.  They are not from San Antonio, and until recently have not seemingly paid any attention to San Antonio, nor expressed any interest in local civic or community affairs. They are ultimately interested in themselves and influence at the highest echelons of government, to further enhance their own coffers. So once again, why are they so interested in a now irrelevant post-hoc debate about an issue that has already been decided by a VIA Transit Board created under state law?

Mayor Castro’s Rise and Judge Wolff’s Leadership

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff

Irrespective of whether your partisanship affiliation sways toward the adoration or vilification of Mayor Julián Castro, his accomplishments and accolades politically have been numerous throughout his entire life in public service here in San Antonio.

The same can be said for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s even lengthier career in public service entirely dedicated to the City of San Antonio. One thing that cannot be debated is their total commitment to our City.

Nevertheless, they are both Democrats, and the Koch brothers tend to disfavor Democratic candidates who seek office.

By all accounts, the trajectory of Mayor Castro is on course for Washington D.C., specifically 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It’s well established there is no love lost between The Koch Brothers and the Democratic Party, and in particular, the Obama Administration.

Mayor Castro, who gave the keynote address of the Democratic National Convention, on the other hand, is closely aligned with members of the administration and the Democratic Party at-large.

Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd gathered at La Fonda on Main to hear election night results. The Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd gathered at La Fonda on Main to hear election night results. The Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Given the Koch Brothers established track record of protecting their own self-interest, it hardly seems they would likely invest significant resources into fighting a local initiative that affects local constituents, if it did not somehow benefit them. But what they logically would be interested in doing is undermining or discrediting the reputation of local political figures that have national prospects of pursuing the highest level of elective politics: fodder to utilize a later point in time, if needed, at a level where there their potential for influence and reward is at its greatest.

This is in the case of Mayor Castro who awaits confirmation for his appointment to HUD, as well as his future prospects as he nudges toward the 2016 presidential ticket.  In the meantime, and even thereafter, they would like to use Judge Wolff as a test case for their sphere of influence, and making the unwitting public of San Antonio guinea pigs for their own little experiment.  Remember, in the end, who has been committed to our San Antonio, and who is remotely funding an effort that has little to do with anything else at this juncture, other than the pocketbooks of specially interested billionaires from another state?

Conclusion

The Koch Brothers, and the activation of their subterfuge called Americans for Prosperity, is an effort to perpetuate the streetcar debate, cloaked in, but not out of consideration for the hyper-local interests of our city and community as a whole.  Theirs is self-serving, much like virtually every other cause they’ve aligned themselves with.  As such, it becomes incumbent upon the voting public to become informed and acknowledge the motivations of their efforts to surreptitiously meddle in the community affairs of the City of San Antonio for political purposes on the national scale—a short term putsch to effectively divide our community as we enter a new era in San Antonio. This, at a time, where we are collectively being thrust into an even greater spotlight on the national stage: the long term objective on a playing field where special interest, and the Koch brothers, especially, have the most to gain.

Do we as citizens of San Antonio want to allow outsiders of our community to generate local political chaos, and steer our civic decisions within San Antonio, for a subject that cannot likely be resolved locally, and especially as it relates to state law?  If the answer is “no” let’s collectively move on toward tackling prospective issues we can effectively and immediately address now, and leave this ideological discussion outside the political arena, and certainly outside the Koch brothers sphere of influence.

If the answer is “yes” then let’s at least be honest about the legal realities of the matter, conversation itself, and the long term ulterior political implications of outside entities who choose to tamper in the local affairs of the city and community of San Antonio.  Furthermore, in the latter scenario, are we prepared to potentially sacrifice proven, effective leadership with a dedicated civic focus geared toward San Antonio, in exchange for potential candidates who espouse rhetoric about a past issue that’s continued to maintain traction, due, in large part, to the activism of special interest groups from outside our community?

This is not about whether you are a Republican or Democrat. This isn’t even about the streetcar project that’s already been decided under state law. This is about whether or not the San Antonio public wants to succumb to special interests from outside our city by groups who are maliciously toying with our community as though it’s their own personal political experiment.

Is this type of precedent we want to establish for our community in this new era of change in the City of San Antonio?

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Blayne Tucker

Blayne Tucker

Blayne Tucker is a lawyer and small business owner. He is the founder and president of the North St. Mary’s Business Owners Association, a board member of the Tobin Hill Community Association, and a...