Mayor says aquifer protection, mass transit not an ‘either/or’ choice

Nirenberg says no SAWS rate increase if aquifer protection program is switched; SAWS executives say differently

San Antonio – Mayor Ron Nirenberg is pushing back at critics as he tries to push forward with a plan to help fund mass transit.

“I’ve seen a narrative develop that suggests that we have to choose between water and transportation,” Nirenberg said in a recent interview with KSAT. “And it’s not an either/or choice. When we work together, when we use our resources collectively as a community, we can do all of these things. And the alternative, the unacceptable alternative, is that we do nothing at all.”

A 1/8 cent sales tax that goes toward funding Linear Creek Parkways and the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program expires in 2021. Rather than having voters renew the tax, Nirenberg wants it to be used to send roughly $36 million to VIA Metropolitan Transit.

A VIA spokeswoman said the money would be used to “support the operations of VIA Reimagined – the agency’s 10-year plan for increased bus frequency, advanced rapid transit and smart transit.”

The sales tax switch hasn’t come without push back from people concerned about the fate of the EAPP, including a suggestion from Texas Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, to use the tax money that currently funds Pre-K 4 SA, instead.

Nirenberg, though, is quick to point out that the program wouldn't disappear. He hopes the SAWS Board of Trustees will agree to take over the program and its funding.

That would likely cut how much money would be available for it, though. Under an option laid out by SAWS executives at a Jan. 14 board meeting, the utility would have about $52 million over five years instead of the $100 million approved by voters during the last go-around at the ballot box.

The plan presented to trustees would require a reduction in how much money the utility gives the city. The utility could then use the savings to pay to continue the EAPP.

"As long as we can conduct the program using the existing revenues, we can do that without a rate increase," Nirenberg told KSAT.

However, that's not quite how SAWS executives explained it to the board, including Nirenberg, at the meeting.

"I do need to say it won't affect rates in the immediate future," SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente told Trustee Eduardo Parra after he expressed excitement that the plan wouldn't require a rate increase. "Whenever you have that kind of outlay, eventually it will catch up with you, but not in the immediate future."

Doug Evanson, senior vice president and chief financial officer of SAWS, confirmed to trustees that the savings from paying a lower amount to the city would "basically entirely" offset the cost of the program for the first five years.

"Depends on the size of the program and some of the other variables he spoke of earlier -- exactly how much we invest -- but we think that that would do it for the five-year period," Evanson said. "Beyond that five-year period, we'd have to look at it a little bit closer."

The mayor says he believes the EAPP is a worthwhile program. However, he also believes the city needs an overhaul of its transportation system.

"I refuse to be just another person who sat in an elected office who simply watched the problem of transportation get worse without doing anything because it was easier to do that," Nirenberg said.

While the mass transit agencies in Austin, Dallas, and Houston all receive a full one cent of sales tax dollars to support their operations, VIA gets only 1/2 cent. An additional 1/4 cent goes to San Antonio Advanced Transportation District.

The 1/8 cent sales tax is a funding option put forward by ConnectSA, a nonprofit group developed formed by Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff that will brief the San Antonio City Council on Tuesday. It has already released 25 recommendations for improving San Antonio’s transportation system.

“The only missing link here, the only missing link in everything that we’re doing right now, is the alignment of the mission and the 1/8 cent tax that allows us to move forward with operations,” Nirenberg said.

The mayor said the additional money from the sales tax will also allow VIA to leverage more federal funding.

“All those grants that have been going to other communities will finally come to San Antonio,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg said the current transportation system isn’t running at a frequency riders can depend on, and congestion is projected to increase.

“So we have to relieve congestion. We have to provide people alternatives. We have to remain economically viable. And that means we have to finally invest in a real transportation system for the city,” Nirenberg said.

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.