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Even factoring in more than $93 million in federal coronavirus dollars, VIA Metropolitan Transit faces a financial shortfall of $126.2 million over the next five years.
VIA is considering reducing bus service, capital project spending, and discretionary spending and adjusting staffing levels to help balance that shortfall, VIA CEO and President Jeff Arndt said at a meeting Tuesday. But he also told board members that the budget forecast was made up of “very preliminary” numbers.
“I personally believe they are fairly pessimistic,” he said.
Notably, the financial forecast did not factor in money from a potential shift of aquifer funding to the transit agency. VIA has been advocating for the ⅛ cent sales tax used to fund the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program since 2000 to be allocated to mass transit instead to augment its current ½ cent sales tax.
Voters last approved giving the ⅛ cent sales tax to aquifer protection and trail development in 2015 – known then as Propositions 1 and 2. The City will collect $180 million from that funding and originally projected it would reach that collection limit in February 2021, City spokeswoman Laura Mayes said. Now, the City thinks that the cap more likely will be met in June 2021.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said on May 19 that he thinks starting a conversation about the ⅛ cent now is “a little further down the road,” as the City is still dealing with its COVID-19 response and how to fund recovery.
“Sales tax revenues have diminished over the last few months of this pandemic pretty seriously,” Nirenberg said. “We’ve actually extended the timeline of those two particular propositions, so our window for making that decision has been extended. But right now we’re totally focused on the pandemic.”
VIA remains committed to putting the sales tax issue on the November ballot, board Chair Hope Andrade said. If voters decide to shift the ⅛ cent sales tax funding over to VIA, then the transit agency will be in a much stronger position over the next five years, Arndt said. From fiscal year 2022 to fiscal year 2025, the agency estimates it would collect $152 million from that sales tax revenue.
VIA had once hoped to use that revenue to build advanced rapid transit in San Antonio as part of the comprehensive mobility plan ConnectSA. But now, even if voters approve the shift, VIA’s service levels would remain “fairly stagnant” until 2025, Arndt said. He and Andrade drafted a letter to Nirenberg on May 21 informing him of the agency’s financial forecast.
“The only funding option legally available for VIA is to pursue the additional 1/8th cent of sales tax capacity to go to the Advanced Transportation District,” they wrote. “These funds will ensure that our regional workforce and families are not penalized by denying them a safe, affordable means to travel as our community recovers from this pandemic.”
VIA will begin collecting fares once more starting June 1. The agency waived fees in March to help bus operators and customers have less physical interaction and avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. With that loss, and with significantly less ridership since the coronavirus pandemic started, VIA projects it will lose $25 million from fare revenue over the next five years.
But the largest hit to VIA’s projected revenue by far comes from an anticipated dip in sales tax revenue. The transit agency receives funding from a ½-cent sales tax and predicted a $136.9 million loss from that funding source over the next five years.
VIA kicked off its budget process on Tuesday, Arndt said, and staff will search for any place it can find savings. Board Vice Chair Bob Comeaux and board secretary Ezra Johnson advocated against reducing benefits for VIA employees as much as possible. Johnson also said he worries about reducing service; VIA projected that a 5 percent to 10 percent service reduction over the next five years would save the agency $90 million.
“Hard choices are going to have to be made, but hopefully that doesn’t come to reducing service. … We need to sound the alarm to City leaders and County leaders that we won’t be able to balance our budget through employee pay reductions,” Johnson said.
Without collecting the ⅛ cent sales tax for transit, VIA likely will have to reduce its service, Andrade said. But successfully restarting the local economy requires giving people reliable ways to move around.
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“What we’re hearing from the City leadership and County is that jobs are very important in reopening our economy,” she said. “I’ve worked on economic development for many years and I will tell you, absolutely – if we can create jobs and offer jobs, we can bring back our economy. But if there’s no jobs, we can’t. Public transportation must be available … to get our people to work, and also to get our students to school and to get our individuals to health care.”
Much of San Antonio’s economy runs on restaurants and the tourism industry, Arndt pointed out, but the people who staff the restaurants and the hotels tourists stay in make up VIA’s core ridership base.
“We know 50 percent of our riders live in households below the poverty level, and 60 percent live in households with no cars,” Arndt said. “People in those income brackets tend to work jobs with no way to work from home. While those people may not be working now, as they return to work, they’re not going to have the option of, ‘Well, I’ll just work from home.’”
Arndt emphasized again that this was a “worst-case scenario,” in his opinion. But this scenario is also built around the assumption that as things open, they stay open, he said.
“It’s going to take some time as we open because we open slowly,” he said. “But there’s no assumption built in these projections that in November of next year, we’re probably gonna have to shut down again. And who knows, right?”