SAN ANTONIO – The future growth of the city’s Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System is uncertain, even as voters ponder a new purpose for the sales tax that has funded its expansion for the past 20 years.
“Without an alternate, sustainable funding source identified, once that 1/8 cent sales tax funding is removed, the program’s in limbo. And we’ve got a long way to go to complete the system,” said Greg Hammer, chairman of the Linear Creekway Parks Advisory Board.
A 1/8 cent sales tax has funded aquifer protection and the creation of linear creekway parks since voters first approved the tax in 2000. The latest version of the tax, which has been renewed three times by voters, is expected to expire in 2021 when it reaches the $180 million cap voters set for it in 2015.
However, voters won’t be asked to renew the tax for the same purposes again on Nov. 3. Instead, the city and VIA Metropolitan Transit officials want the voters to consider sending the tax money toward a workforce development program for a few years and then toward transportation.
In preparation for the tax switch, the city has been working to nail down replacement funding sources for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and the Linear Creekway Parks Program, both of which it currently controls.
The city appears close to nailing down a replacement funding stream for the EAPP, which it will present to city council members on Thursday. However, the funding for the Linear Creekway Parks Program, which is responsible for the creation of dozens of miles of hiking and biking trails in the city -- mostly along waterways, is on less sturdy ground.
The city and county had previously had an agreement for the county to fund the expansion of linear creekway parks through its capital program. However, the uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic has put that idea on hold, with no one able to say when it could actually happen.
Bexar County Manager David Smith has proposed the county hold off on funding any new capital programs until it gains a better idea of how much property tax revenue -- the county’s primary source of income -- has been affected.
The county will get an idea of how many businesses are still in operation from its first wave of collections in January, Smith said, while the first indication of the new property valuations should come in at the end of April.
“What I told the city is, ‘I’m not saying we’re not going to do it. I’m just saying we won’t know how to do it and how fast we can do it until the spring of 2021,’” Smith told KSAT.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who is pushing for voters to approve the 1/8 cent sales tax for workforce development, told KSAT in an emailed statement that “Construction of the greenway trails system will continue.”
"Prior to the pandemic, we crafted an agreement with Bexar County to take on the next rounds of trails development as part of their flood control capital program. That commitment still remains. I am working with Judge Wolff to ensure the greenway system development doesn’t fall by the wayside.
“The sales tax currently funding the projects will be collected for that purpose until next spring. We have the time and the will to ensure the continuation of the greenway trails.”
Wolff told KSAT he was committed to the funding plan, but he could not commit to “when" it would happen.
“I would never say ‘never.’ We just don’t know how long it will take us to pull out of this thing,” Wolff said.
Hammer isn’t a fan of using borrowed money to pay for the system’s expansion, though he said he would support it as a “stop gap.” He estimates the system is about 70% of the way toward completing a planned ring around the city.
As it develops, though, he says it becomes more of an alternative transportation amenity, allowing miles of safe passage for bikers and walkers. He sees room to expand beyond the original goals of the trails system, which would require sustained funding.
“As the system continues to evolve, the end point keeps getting extended,” Hammer said.
While Hammer would like for the 1/8 cent sales tax to continue to be an option, it will not appear on the ballot. Should the city and VIA’s initiatives fail, Hammer said the advisory board would support putting the tax back onto the ballot to fund the trail system again.
However, Hammer says he’s not weighing in on the election.
“I’m not going to give you a position one way or the other. I’m going to leave it up to the voters to choose what they think is the right thing to do,” Hammer said.