Despite their wishes, San Antonio residents will see their taxes raised for a fiscally irreconcilable and entirely unnecessary deal at the behest of Mayor Julian Castro and County Judge Nelson Wolff. And these two elected officials are seeing to it that the city pays for their pet streetcar program no matter what.
Overseeing the funding and implementation of this concept is San Antonio’s Metropolitan Transit Authority known as Via.
Established in 1977, Via is governed by an 11-member Board of Trustees. Five are appointed by the San Antonio City Council, three by the Bexar County Commissioners Court, and two by the Suburban Mayors. The chair is elected by the Board.
Historically, Via has overseen the administration of the municipal bus system, funded from sales tax revenue and ridership fares. Their performance is less than exemplary – operating at a loss of $130 million during nine of the past eleven years forcing them to dip into capital reserves, even after voting to increase the sales tax to generate more revenue. (More on that shortly. . .)
The streetcar / light rail idea is nothing new, although its proponents would purport that it is the pinnacle of modern mass transit. Those more grounded by reality though realize that’s nothing more than wishful thinking. According to “The Streetcar Fantasy,” a comprehensive industry appraisal of streetcar programs similar to the one proposed for San Antonio, streetcars and their operating systems (unlike cars, buses and highways) have not improved in any significant fashion in the past 100 years, and remain generally inefficient and ineffective.
But despite the inherent inefficiencies of such a system, Mayor Castro and Judge Wolff are still pressing for it, ignoring the fact that San Antonio voters shot down a proposal in 2000 – by a considerable 70% – 30% margin – for a streetcar program run by Via.
The idea of a streetcar program was so unpopular that officials had to promise that a new taxing district – the Advanced Transportation District that voters ratified in 2004 – would not use any taxpayer resources to pay for future light-rail programs.
Now, voters are stuck with the extra tax – which still hasn’t remedied Via’s dismal fiscal situation – while the transit agency is poised to completely renege on promises made about the project now proposed to cost $272 million (not including operations, maintenance, or a contingency fee).
This is just scratching the surface of the entire debacle surrounding Via and the Castro Administrations’s pipe-dream of establishing a legacy of “green” and “modern” mass transit. San Antonio residents will end up paying – metaphorically and financially, if they don’t take a greater interest in those running their local government.