SAN ANTONIO – The chairwoman of the VIA Metropolitan Transit board remains hopeful the mayor will reconsider his decision to refrain from sending more sales tax funds to the transit agency, which she says it desperately needs.
“Our plan is to meet with him, to share all the information that we have seen and hopefully will prompt him to understand the need for us to move forward in securing this 1/8 cent sales tax,” Hope Andrade told KSAT Wednesday.
During his State of the City address Tuesday night, Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced that investments in the city’s transit system, which he had championed, would have to wait, and city leaders would not ask voters to redirect a 1/8 cent sales tax toward transportation funding on the November ballot as planned.
Though Nirenberg didn’t specify how the tax might be used instead, the move appeared to leave the tax funds available to be used for economic recovery efforts.
“This is a painful but necessary decision for us. But direct action to ensure a healthful economy, economic recovery, is mandatory. It means rebuilding now,” Nirenberg said.
But VIA officials are worried about their own agency’s recovery.
The sales tax was initially part of ConnectSA's plans to fund transit initiatives at VIA, like better bus service, a new “advanced rapid transit” system, and “smart” transit programs, like VIA Link. But with the agency facing a projected $126 million shortfall over the next five years because of the pandemic, VIA is now focused on maintaining its current services, not expanding them.
The sales tax, which VIA says could bring in $152 million between fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2025, could serve as a lifeline.
Without that money, Andrade said the agency would begin discussing service reductions “as early as next year,” resulting in fewer routes and less frequent bus service.
“If we reduce service, we’d go back to the service we were offering in 2016, which meant longer waits. And that’s not what we want to offer,” Andrade said.
Whereas other transit agencies in the state receive a full cent of sales tax revenue, VIA receives just 1/2 cent. Andrade said in “this state of emergency,” the agency “must” pursue the 1/8 cent sales tax.
Andrade said the VIA board agrees “we cannot leave our most vulnerable behind.”
“From essential workers to elderly to disabled citizens, they all rely on VIA for central mobility. And we feel that we have a responsibility to be there to get them where they need to go,” Andrade said. “You can’t have economic mobility without mobility.”
Whatever it might be tapped for, the 1/8 cent sales tax would not be able to pump money into any budgets until at least next year. The tax’s current use, funding linear creek parkways and the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, is not expected to expire until summer 2021.
Nirenberg has said the effort to find a funding source for the popular aquifer protection program would also need to wait. Before the pandemic arrived, city staff had suggested the city could continue funding the program with borrowed money.