A vexing tax issue

Debating the pros and cons of VIA's proposed sales tax increase

It's a powerful argument: The city's population is approaching critical mass, and an $8 billion shortfall looms for streets and highways. Proponents of a permanent 1/4-cent sales tax increase to fund an Advanced Transportation District consider San Antonio's transportation system to be where Dallas was eight years ago, and where Houston was in 1994.

On the other hand, San Antonio already has more miles of freeway per capita than any other Texas city. That encourages suburban sprawl, increases commute times, and requires residents to spend more time in their automobiles.

Transportation open house
Thu, Sep 30
VIA Community Room
1021 San Pedro
Citizens on both sides of the street squared off last week at a debate sponsored by Smart Growth San Antonio. "We don't have a position at this point," said Marianne Kestenbaum of Smart Growth, which is also lobbying for an 1/8-cent sales tax increase to buy additional land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. "Our goal is to get people involved in the issue and make an informed vote at election time."

If voters pass the referendum, additional sales tax revenue would be divvied equally between VIA and the proposed transportation district, which would allocate money for streets, highways, and related infrastructure.

Bill Barker, an urban transportation consultant and certified planner, won a toss of a monthly VIA bus pass, and led off the debate.

"I'm in opposition, but it's not all bad," he explained to the small crowd. He said passing the sales tax would increase costs of goods to low-income residents, while more freeways would mean increased sprawl, congestion, more traffic fatalities, and more cost per capita. In addition, money from sales of gasoline, oil, and cars does not stay in the local economy.

"We have plenty of taxes and fees for building and maintaining roads," Barker wrote in a prepared statement, "and now we will be voting on yet another paid by everyone, not just road users. Do we really need to be the only city in Texas to have a new sales tax dedicated for roads?"

Donze Lopez of Citizens for Better Transportation pointed out that when the Texas Legislature authorized cities to implement a metropolitan transit authority and to collect a 1 cent sales tax to fund it, San Antonio opted to use only a half-cent sales tax, whereas Austin, Dallas, and Houston committed the entire amount. He said those cities use those funds to leverage more dollars with the Texas Department of Transportation to fix their transportation problems. "San Antonio goes to the transportation commission with empty hands, and they are told to do for themselves."

Tim Tuggey, chairman of the VIA board of directors, said the city's mass transit system is at a crossroads in public transportation in the metro area. "We want to protect our dependent riders and get into a vision of future needs." •

By Michael Cary

To see previous stories about the proposed sales tax, see "Can't get there from here," June 17-23, 2004 and "A Tuggey of war," August 19-25, 2004.

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