San Antonio’s Challenge: Protect the Aquifer and Get Real With VIA Funding

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Students board a bus at Northwest Vista College in District 6.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Students board a VIA bus at Northwest Vista College that connects to the Ingram Transit Center.

San Antonio’s efforts to increase funding for VIA Metropolitan Service to give citizens a better mass transit system suffered a significant setback last week and left mobility advocates uncertain of the road ahead.

The ConnectSA initiative right now is a plan without funding, and VIA’s historic underfunding compared to other Texas metro areas leaves it with ambitious plans that it cannot execute. At least $1.3 billion is needed to fund the 25 projects by 2025 recommended in the ConnectSA plan.

San Antonio’s needs are urgent. Unhealthy air quality and growing congestion can only be addressed by reducing vehicle volume on the highways. People who depend on public transportation deserve a more responsive system, and more of us should become regular users. The sprawling metro area needs bus rapid transit and high occupancy vehicle lanes to efficiently connect suburbs to the center city. No major Texas city spends less on mass transit than San Antonio.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have staked out politically risky positions by calling for reallocation to VIA the one-eighth-cent sales tax that currently funds the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and construction of the Howard Peak Greenways Trail System.

Since voters approved the program in 2000, $268 million has been spent for aquifer protection and $113 million for funding the linear creekway trail system. Nearly 160,000 acres of land has been protected and 69 miles of trails have been built, with another 50 miles of trails funded. Voters have overwhelmingly approved the tax four times.

In calling for the tax shift, Wolff and Nirenberg gambled that elected board members of the San Antonio River Authority would approve a tax increase that would have generated $45 million in annual funding to offset the City’s sales tax reallocation. SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott supported the tax increase, but a 7-5 board majority shot it down last week. 

Some aquifer advocates have opposed the tax swap, anyway, saying that SARA lacks the authority to protect properties over the entire recharge zone.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The San Antonio River Authority board of trustees shot down a proposed tax increase 7-5.

Nirenberg and Wolff told me they are exploring other, yet-to-be disclosed funding mechanisms for aquifer protection and the greenway trails. They intend to push ahead shifting the one-eighth-cent sales tax to mobility projects and place it on the November 2020 ballot.

Voters are going to be hard to convince. A November ballot measure would represent the first effort by elected officials to get people to invest in the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. Support for the long-term plan is going to require its own sustained education campaign.

The SARA board majority seemed to cast its votes based on gut feelings. Several cited anecdotal evidence of opposition to the increase, but there has been no effort to engage the public. The proposed tax hike on an average Bexar County homeowner’s bill would have risen less than a $5 a month.

In the absence of a demonstrable alternative funding plan, convincing voters to reallocate the one-eighth-cent sales tax away from the popular EAPP to VIA could prove impossible. It’s unclear how long the EAPP should go on, or how much of the recharge zone should be protected, but these are not issues that have been extensively explored with the voting public.

The recharge zone in the three counties covers 2.5-2.8 million acres, but much of Bexar County is now developed and beyond protection. Much of the property in Medina and Uvalde counties is being used for ranching or agricultural purposes. There is no evidence that those uses are a threat to the porous recharge zone or the underground aquifer which supplies drinking water for 2 million people in South and Central Texas.

Nirenberg and Wolff will surely need more than a traditional political campaign funded by the business community to win the support they are seeking next November. Giving the public a data-driven sense of the EAPP’s target acreage and the timeline for protecting it would help frame the public conversation.

The SARA vote, meanwhile, has not deterred them.

“We will move to use the existing the one-eighth-cent sales tax for transportation next year,” Nirenberg said Friday. “That decision has never been linked to SARA’s plans.

“The only feasible way for San Antonio to build the transportation system it needs is with the sales tax. Transportation has been underfunded here for decades. We have to correct that. I remain a dedicated supporter of the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.  We have several options for developing a new revenue stream to keep the program operating when the sales tax is no longer available for that purpose in 2021.”

Wolff agreed.

“We have to address climate change, and there is no way for us to do that without getting individual vehicles off the roadways and giving people the alternative mobility options they want and need,” Wolff said.

The case needs to be made that San Antonio must continue to protect and enhance its natural resources, and simultaneously, build a 21st century transit system with new mobility options. That can’t be done without greater public investment and a lot of conversation.

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