Sales Taxes for Aquifer Protection, Linear Parks Eyed to Fund Transport Plan

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Busses, taxis, and pedestrian vehicles travel South on Saint Mary's Street.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Buses, taxis, and pedestrian vehicles travel South on Saint Mary's Street.

Funding a modern mobility plan for San Antonio might require shifting existing sales taxes away from protecting the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and creating linear creekway parks, the plan’s architects said.

At Friday meeting at the Rivard Report’s offices, two of the three tri-chairs of the ConnectSA initiative, Henry Cisneros and Jane Macon, presented the framework of their transportation plan, along with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and San Antonio mayor, and Macon, former City Attorney and partner with international law firm Bracewell, spent the better part of 2018 working on a vision to move residents around a growing and increasingly congested San Antonio. The third ConnectSA tri-chair appointed by Nirenberg and Wolff is Hope Andrade, formerly chair of VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board.

The plan would implement rapid transit in bus-only lanes in key highway arteries of the city, expand sidewalks and protected bike and scooter lanes, and shrink bus wait times, among other initiatives, planners said.

It would require initial funding of $1.3 billion by 2025 to deliver on early capital projects, including an “advanced rapid transit” corridor  that runs down part of the central spine of the city along U.S. 281 and San Pedro Avenue.

“This is a plan that threads the needle,” Cisneros said. “We try to get as advanced as we can for San Antonio but in a cost-effective way, because our pocketbook is limited here.”

To meet a set of near-term programs by 2025, officials would have to break ground on a bus rapid-transit project by 2021, Cisneros said.

To provide funding, planners are eyeing the 1/8-cent sales tax passed in 2016 and meant to generate $180 million through 2020 to purchase land over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and create new linear park spaces, such as those along Leon and Salado creeks.

Passed in 2015, the twin sales tax proposals were meant to generate $100 million for aquifer protection and $80 million for linear creekway parks. Under the aquifer program, the City uses the funding to purchase undeveloped land west of Bexar County where rainfall and flowing streams supply the city’s main drinking water source.

The Edwards Aquifer is a vast limestone rock layer that stretches from McKinney County to north of Austin. Much of the rain that makes its way to San Antonio first lands in counties to the west San Antonio and makes its way into the aquifer in an area known as the recharge zone.

Four times since 2000, San Antonio voters have approved sales taxes to generate funding to protect land over the recharge zone, typically through conservation easements.

So far, the initiative has prevented 156,081 acres over the recharge zone from being developed. For perspective, that’s about half the size of San Antonio city limits.

San Antonio’s sales tax is capped at 8.25 percent, though voters could approve shifting the sales tax away from aquifer protection and linear parks to another area, such as transportation.

Sean, 10, celebrates his birthday with a ride along the Alazán Creek Linear at Woodlawn Lake Park. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Sean, 10, celebrates his birthday with a ride along the Alazán Creek Linear Park at Woodlawn Lake.

“Why would we do that?” Cisneros said. “Well, one, because the tax is expiring [in 2020]. Two, because the program is nearing the end, there’s less to do. Thirdly, because all of the land that’s left to buy is outside Bexar County.”

Supporters of the program say there’s much land over the recharge zone left to be preserved. San Antonio has no water treatment plants that clean water after it’s pumped out of the ground, so many see preserving land as the best way to keep the city’s main water supply from getting contaminated.

“I’m kind of taken aback,” said Francine Romero, who chairs the Conservation Advisory Board that provides oversight of the program.

“Looking at the transportation report, there’s just that line that we should take money from that sales tax,” Romero continued. “There’s absolutely no consideration of where that program is [and] what that would mean.”

Romero, a University of Texas at San Antonio associate dean, has served as chair since 2011. She said while the program has done a good job of preserving the recharge zone, it is just beginning to focus on the land upstream of the recharge zone where water flows towards the aquifer.

“[The aquifer] is a system,” Romero said. “There are scientists who can advise us on how best to preserve the system.”

Annalisa Peace, executive director of the advocacy group Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said the program should preserve “as much as we can get, especially close to Bexar County, because the danger of it being developed out are pretty imminent.”

However, Peace was open to the idea of the program being funded a different way, such as through bond money. Other communities, such as San Marcos and Austin, use different means to purchase land over the recharge zone for protection, she said.

Nirenberg thinks the funding for aquifer protection should continue, though maybe not under a sales tax.

“My perspective is we need to find an alternate funding mechanism,” he said. “One of them, for  example, would require some legislative authorization to provide for bond funds to be used outside of Bexar County.”

Romero said that even if bond money could be used, “the beauty of the sales tax is how clearly defined we have to be.”

“State law says it’s for watershed protection,” Romero said. “You can’t stray from that, so if people started to say, ‘Well, this parcel of land is really beautiful or really historic,’ you can’t do that.”

Finding another way to fund linear parks might be easier. Because moving people around San Antonio requires further investment in creekway trails, Nirenberg and Cisneros said bond funds could continue providing for their expansion.

Though the sales tax is one of the most specific funding sources proposed for the transportation plan, the draft includes several other proposals as well. One is shifting some tax revenue derived via an existing “advanced transportation district” from the City to “larger-scale mobility projects.”

It also proposes the creation of an additional “transportation user fee,” such as those used in Corpus Christi, Bryan, and Austin.

Another funding idea involves the Texas Legislature allowing the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority to collect an additional $10-per-year vehicle registration fee on top of the $10 annual fee already collected within Bexar County.

Other ideas that are more undefined at this stage of the planning process include bond funding, drawing on “public-private partnerships,” drawing on state and federal funds, and other tax districts and fees.

11 thoughts on “Sales Taxes for Aquifer Protection, Linear Parks Eyed to Fund Transport Plan

  1. Terrible idea to cut back funding for aquifer protection. No water leads to less people and less transportation needs. Fund the transportation a different way.

  2. Continue the sales tax for the aquifer protection program and for the linear park system. Our primary water supply needs to be protected and the creek trails are popular, improve the health of our citizens, have room for expansion, and needs funds for maintenance. The sales tax is in place for these two programs. Develop separate funding sources for the transportation projects that are acceptable to the public such bonds.

  3. Thank you, Brendan.The idea of changing the 1/8 cent sales tax focus from water protection to transportation needs has been in the works for awhile. My question is, with 1 million more people coming to San Antonio by 2040, Half of them driving, and ALL of them using and needing water, WHY would we stop protecting our largest and main source of water? 1 million more people means More neighborhoods, apartments, stores, buildings, parking lots & roads – and means a lot More impervious cover to divert water from our aquifer, & More water-wasting grass lawns unnecessarily needing to be green all year.
    Transportation ideas, plans, and projects have many options. HOV lanes, mass transit, Uber’s & Lyfts, bikes, scooters, walkable communities & more. There is only one for water. The Edwards Aquifer Protection Program has done an exceptional job of protecting the recharge zone from being developed and paved over. We will continue to have drier years and periods of drought. We need to continue protecting undeveloped land over the aquifer to ensure that San Antonians, all 2.4 million by 2040, have the water we need to drink and use in the near future and beyond. It is a mistake to not continue this successful program that is extremely popular with voters and landowners alike. It is a mistake to trade water for transportation. Yes, we need to improve transportation…, but not at the cost of water protection.
    Also Brendan, you stated “Under the aquifer program, the City uses the funding to purchase undeveloped land west of Bexar County“ – but the EAPP program mostly does not purchase land. It purchases ‘conservation easements’ of the land, which protects the land from being developed. The property owner still owns the land. That is why this program is so popular with the landowners. They still keep their land. This is also beneficial for the City as they do not become landowners with all the costs and maintenance that it would incur.

    I hope the leaders see the greater importance of water, and continue to protect our vital natural resources.

  4. Good article. what is breakdown of 8.25% COSA sales tax. Prefer the transportation tax under ARMA, but, can we apply to Region? Either way, need a new revenue source for Future Transportation, whether user fee or vehicle fee.

  5. NOW there is an interest in preserving land over the aquifer??????? NOW that the “linear parks” can be an asset to existing development!!!!!! NOW, the rabbit is being pulled out the hat, except that NOW the illusion is so obvious and pat, not even a challenge to a third-grade birthday party

    NOW is the time to understand all of this concern over future traffic can go away (poof) if you STOP development over the aquifer NOW!!

  6. It is time to rethink VIA and public transportation. Bring in a new transportation tech company and lets see what they come up with. Times are changing, lets embrace the change. More buses just seems wrong in a time of self driving cars and Lyft apps.

    CPS needs to embrace change, lets bring in some alternative high tech energy firms and see what plans they come up with. I believe Jeremy Rifkin came up with a visionary plan for CPS which was not followed, probably because of the money generated to the city.

  7. We need to keep that 1/8th cent sales tax focused on aquifer protection. It doesn’t matter if the land preserved is outside Bezar county as long as its significant for aquifer protection. It’s such a fantastic program. It’s really sad that folks take aim at it like this. Get creative and figure out other ways to address transportation but leave the sales tax for aquifer preservation intact!

  8. It seems like the funds that could become available will be the Pre-K4SA funds. If the Lege does its job this time, they should fund all day Pre-K for everyone who wants it. It is also 1/8th of a cent tax that I believe that also needs to be voted on and wouldn’t require a tax increase.

    The linear parks are one of our best economic development tools that we have. As soon a a drainage ditch gets converted back to a linear park, the property values adjacent to, and in the vicinity of, the park go up.

    As a city with almost no water purification plants, aquifer protection is critical. The state should be funding Pre-K for everyone. Get our legislators to do their job, then those funds will become available.

  9. I agree with folks who say keep the 1/8 cent sales tax for aquifer protection for that important purpose, and look elsewhere for transportation money. Where? The unspecified “public/private partnerships” mentioned in the plan are a good target to develop. As a former city planner in Texas who studied urban issues at a German university for four years, I learned how their government gets industry to kick in for public transportation, especially – as counter-intuitive as it may seem – the automobile industry, tied to reducing pollution. For example, helping to fund a FREE public transportation system. From The Guardian, 2/13/18: “Titans like BMW, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler or the world’s biggest carmaker Volkswagen agreed to pay some €250m euros into a billion-euro fund to upgrade local transport.” *
    We should see if Toyota would kick into our transportation plan. Other local industries such as energy-related companies, and insurance companies (who stand to pay out billions more in pollution-related health claims if pollution is not reduced) should also be cultivated as partners for the plan.

  10. Just returned for an extended period out of the country and I’m glad to see this as I catch up on messages.
    Mayor Howard Peak, myself and many that have responded to the article, understand the work that has been done. As the Aquifer Initiative was developed, we were unsure the public was clear on the great value it is to us. When the purpose and program were clearly explained; the program of the Edwards Aquifer as well as the Greenway Program passéd easily. The voters knew that Aqua is Vida as well as the fact the Howard Peak Greenway is the envy of many cities, and continues to grow.Those who commented “it is almost finished” are clearly not informed on the Edwards and its value to our citizens.
    Traffic/transportation is an issue, but taking funds from a proven inttiative isnt the way to solve it.

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