San Antonio’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, Via, is moving forward with an irresponsible and counterproductive streetcar program San Antonio voters don’t want –paid for with their tax dollars. Where exactly those funds are coming from should sound an alarm for voters who were promised their tax dollars wouldn’t be used to finance such boondoggles.
As previously mentioned, Via already tried to bring a light-rail program to voters for approval in 2000, and it failed 70-30%. The idea sat so negatively with voters that four years later, when Via held an election to increase their revenue through a sales tax raise of ¼ cent through the establishment of the Advanced Transportation District, they had to promise in their election literature none of the ATD funds would be used for light-rail or toll roads.
Half of the ATD revenue would be allocated to Via for public transportation, and the other half would be split evenly between the City of San Antonio and Bexar County for infrastructure improvements, including streets and sidewalks, and shared costs of primarily state or federally funded road projects.
In this arrangement, pending federal approval of an infrastructure project, Bexar County would put in its share of funding and receive four times as much in federal funds for approved projects. (example: County puts in $250,000, receives $1,000,000, for a total of $1.25 million total funding for a project)
In 2011, Via again proposed another streetcar program, this time: $180 million for 4.56 miles of track as the first phase of their “2035 Long Range Comprehensive Transit Plan.” It would require the County and the City to separately put up $55 million and Via would supply the rest. The County’s share was to come from the ATD funds.
The starter plan has been revised multiple times, specifically around the issue of a circulator bus and the construction of an East-West line. And although he had been always been a supporter of including the line, County Judge Wolff is on record saying it didn’t matter where the route went, as long as the streetcar got started. (One would think that when it comes to laying expensive, immobile track the location of the route becomes of great importance.)
And so, finally the East-West line was included, contingent on Bexar County shelling out an extra $37 million, for a total of $92 million from the ATD.
But remember they promised not to use these tax dollars on a light-rail system just eleven years earlier.
(This is where it gets messy.)
Voters remembered Via’s promise that this would not happen, and were not happy about it. Understandably upset about the feeling of being lied to, concerned citizens raised the question of whether or not Via had entered into a “contract with the voters” by their election literature campaign promises. A tricky legal issue, to be sure, this has garnered the ire of several elected officials, however their concerns have fallen on deaf ears…
And so, with scrutiny intensifying –and knowing full-well what a legal challenge can do to one’s timeline– Wolff decided to try to obfuscate with the origins of the funds. Essentially playing a shell-game with the ATD funds, Wolff swapped the money out with the Texas Transportation Commission, moving the $92 million from the ATD by putting it toward an already funded project for improvements to loop 1604 and 281, in exchange for the exact same amount to be taken out of that project and be put towards the streetcar.
And in so doing, lost the county’s ability to leverage those funds for federal dollars –about $368 million – for infrastructure projects, such as highway improvements and congestion relief initiatives.
Voters are the masters of their elected officials. That’s how the system is supposed to work, anyway, but people are also supposed to show up to the polls –hence the term civic duty.
With low voter turnout in San Antonio for local races such as city council and mayor, it’s not much of a surprise that dichotomy has been reversed; with elected officials telling voters what they’re getting, instead of listening to their needs. This particular situation is still developing now; and San Antonio residents still have time to do their due diligence and fight against having to finance the pet projects of their elected elites.