The heat is on

As voting begins, environmental groups criticize VIA initiative

Mass transit is a concept that historically the environmental community has supported, but two local groups said last week that they oppose VIA's ballot initiative for a sales tax increase.

Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and the Bexar County Green Party are criticizing the measure, which asks voters to approve a perpetual 1/4-cent sales tax increase to fund mass transit and Texas Department of Transportation road projects. Under the proposal, half of the sales tax collected would go into VIA's coffers; the other half would go to TxDOT and the City under the auspices of an Advanced Transportation District.

The apportionment of the sales tax was part of a bill passed by the Texas legislature last session. VIA projects that the sales tax will raise $34 million annually.

"We support mass transit and public transportation," said AGUA's Annalisa Peace. "But we do not like that half the money is going to TxDOT for roads, and that we'll have a sales tax in perpetuity for highway projects."

When VIA unveiled its proposal in June, the ADT was a way to raise funds for the financially ailing transit system while sweetening the deal for voters who don't ride the bus. As San Antonio's population has increased so have commute times and traffic congestion.

Of the portion allocated to roads, only a quarter of the money is going to TxDOT, countered Tim Tuggey, chairman of the VIA Board of Trustees. The other quarter goes to city streets. The federal government will provide matching funds for sales tax collected. Other Texas cities such as Dallas and Houston use a 1/4-cent for federal matching funds, Tuggey added.

"I think it's important that we look at our transportation system as a system. I don't think we should divorce transit from street and highway considerations."

VIA currently collects a 1/2-cent sales tax that voters approved in 1977; it is a perpetual tax, as is the proposed levy. None of the public materials mentions that the tax doesn't expire.

"Nobody's been trying to hide it, either," Tuggey said. "When the topic comes up, I point out that it's not subject to a termination."

In a prepared statement, the Bexar County Green Party noted that San Antonio has more miles of freeway per capita than any other Texas city. Environmental groups also contend that building more roads stimulates more traffic rather than easing it.

"In no way is this going to promote congestion," Tuggey said. "To be blunt, this initiative is a very small step forward in street and highway funding. Most of the projects are for roadways already in place. There are other projects, including flood gauges and bus inlet lanes that are totally unrelated to putting more pavement on the road."

With ADT funds, eight new projects are slated to be built, including upgrading part of Loop 410 between Nacogdoches to Austin Highway to 10 lanes. Most of the priority projects involved widening roads, including Bandera near Cincinnati and Culebra on the far West Side. Other neighborhood street improvements are included in the proposal.

AGUA is particularly concerned about a proposed project on North Blanco Road, which lies over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. "We don't want more building over the recharge zone," Peace said.

Peace said AGUA prefers that VIA propose another sales tax initiative that doesn't include highway projects. "We support mass transit and public transportation," Peace said. "We're concerned that we're giving that money away from public transportation."

The Greens noted that TxDOT and the City have other revenue sources for building and improving roads, including federal gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, and motor oil taxes. In the 2003 session, the Texas legislature passed five new or increased fees to provide money to TxDOT. Locally, the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization receives about $22 million annually as part of a federal surface transportation program; this money can be used by cities for public roads.

In addition to federal construction funding, the MPO receives between $1.5 and $2 million annually in federal and state transportation planning funds. Tuggey said that some of that funding is being sent out of Bexar County; by receiving federal matching funds, the money would be earmarked for local projects. Moreover, "there's not enough money in those tax streams to give us a leg up," he added. Other cities are using leveraged dollars to get more federal money. There's some money to be had and we want to get our fair share."

Peace is also concerned that state- and locally funded highway projects don't have to comply with federal requirements, including environmental impact studies. TxDOT said that projects receiving federal matching funds would have to meet those requirements. The only projects that would be exempt are local ones.

Without the funding, VIA would have to further reduce service, including transportation for the disabled, Tuggey said. "VIA is approaching a crisis. This funding is critical. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

By Lisa Sorg

To see previous stories about VIA's proposal, see "Can't get there from here," June 17-23, 2004 and "Tuggey of war," August 19-23, 2004.

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