The QueQue - February 2, 2011

VIA’s pet elephant

As VIA develops plans to expand traditional bus service and branch into “rapid” (do we sound skeptical already?) transit, streetcars and light rail, idling in the back of every SmartWaySA open house — forums now rotating around the city — is a tricked-out 500-pound elephant affectionately called The Great American Recession.

At the bottom of a “funding options” display at one of last week’s forums dedicated to the agency’s long-range plan was the fine print: “No new services will be established without new secure funding sources.”

“That’s a very, very important asterisk,” one consultant told QueQue.

With VIA forecasting light rail to run between $50 and $90 million per mile and at least $20 million per mile for streetcars, QueQue concurred.

John Kulpa, a SmartWaySA project director, said VIA’s plans to transform mass transit in the city would run on the order of “several billion dollars.”

VIA says it would need sizable federal and state grants to fund such an ambitious project, grants that are becoming increasingly difficult to get, according to Bill Barker, a senior analyst with the City of San Antonio’s Office of Environmental Policy.

The Congressional Budget Office’s fiscal outlook for 2011-2012 released last week, states the Highway Trust Fund, which issues grants to help build mass transit projects, is going broke — with the feds injecting billions into the trust just to keep it solvent. “Money is clearly the limiting issue, and it’s not at all clear where the funding is going to come from,” Barker said.

Catch VIA’s state-of-the-art pipe dream from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight at The Neighborhood Place, 3014 Rivas Street, and at the same time Thursday at Sam Houston High School, 4635 Houston Street.


Dirty deely-o

A new report on industrial mercury emissions from Environment Texas released last week shows CPS Energy’s coal-fired plants at Calaveras Lake are the 11th worst emitters of mercury, releasing 440 pounds of the neurotoxin in 2009 (358 into the air), even as Texas itself out-polluted all other states with a cloud of 16,350 pounds of the stuff.

While Calaveras’ Spruce and Deely coal plants have cut their mercury pollution dramatically (from 760 pounds in 2000), the debate among environmental groups is hot over Deely, the utility’s oldest and dirtiest plant that came online in the late ’70s. Part of what is scrambling their response has been CPS CEO Doyle Beneby’s interest in retiring some of those coal plants early — that and the recent Express-News report stating that delaying a $565-million scrubber purchase (promised by CPS in 2005) “could enable `Beneby` to push forward plans to substantially increase the utility’s solar investments.” But delaying scrubbers has no relation to solar, the utility’s spokesperson told QueQue this week. “It’s not an either-or. It’s a deferred decision on scrubbers, and we’re looking at solar,” said spokesperson Lisa Lewis. (Does early retirement of some coal plants mean a deeper investment in nuclear? “Don’t know yet,” she said.)

CPS is also watching planned reductions in federal air standards for toxic compounds before they leap for toxic-reducing scrubbers. Those proposals are now under attack by more than 20 Texas Republican Congressmembers — including SA’s newbie Francisco Canseco, along with a cast of regular earth eaters like boogyman Joe Barton — hoping to scuttle any tightened federal air pollution regs in a move that would prevent CPS from ever being required to fulfill its promise. “Let’s be clear: If these lawmakers are successful in blocking the EPA from doing its job to cut life-threatening pollution, more asthma sufferers, particularly children, will wind up gasping for breath,” said Health Care Without Harm’s Climate Policy Coordinator Brenda Afzal.


Cold cuts

Former Lt. Governor Bill Hobby is asking Texas business leaders to oppose a “cuts-only strategy” to deal with the estimated $27 billion state budget shortfall in the coming two years, saying the current plan laid out by lawmakers threatens the state’s economic recovery.

Hobby and Center for Public Policy Priorities Executive Director F. Scott McCown sent a four-page letter to hundreds of chambers of commerce around the state asking them to support a “balanced approach” for dealing with Texas’ budget woes.

The pair says an early Texas House budget proposal chipping away at funding for education and state health and human services would eliminate 9,000 state jobs and result in an untold number of layoffs at school districts and local governments.

“With a 27 percent cut to state programs and services, we can provide an almost endless list of damaging consequences,” the letter reads.

Meanwhile, a San Antonio delegation converged Tuesday on Austin warning that not only an economic recovery is in jeopardy, but the state’s very future. Voices for Children San Antonio gathered to urge lawmakers to retreat from their anti-tax stance and urged tapping into the Rainy Day Fund to keep critical social services functioning for the state’s youngest residents.

Proposed House cuts would drastically limit the availability of pre-K programs and keep kids with developmental delays, who could otherwise be prepared to be “mainstreamed” before they hit public ed, out in the cold, said Voices Director Cam Mesina. “When we ignore that delay, the kid gets into school, he or she is overwhelmed, gets behind, and gets further and further behind,” he said. “That’s an easy win: Put that money up front and save it in prisons down the road.”

Of course, a generation of healthy kids would also put a serious crimp in the powerful private-prison industrial complex. We get to choose.

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