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Will VIA Stay In Castle Hills Or Will Voters Remove It?

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Joey Palacios
/
Texas Public Radio
Castle Hills City Hall, like many voting sites, is filled with political signs. Many advocating for or against VIA

VIA Bus Service will be discontinued in the San Antonio suburb of Castle Hills if voters on Saturday approve eliminating VIA in their community.   At issue is how best to spend the $500,000 dollars in sales tax money now dedicated to mass transit.

The ballot issue is a little complicated.  There are actually two questions:  The first asks voters if Castle Hills should continue VIA service?  If  they say no, then there’s a second question. Should Castle Hills create a municipal development district to use the money on other city needs.?

Along streets in Castle Hills competing signs tell the story of a community divided over what to do.  Some urge voters to keep VIA.  Others encourage voters to dump VIA saying “Keep our money” or “Fix our streets,” instead.

Sarah Ngundu is among the bus riders who would lose transportation to work if voters say no to VIA.  She’s a retail worker who lives in Castle Hills and works at North Star Mall. “I would probably end up having to take a taxi which is much more expensive than having to take the bus,” she says.

Ngundu is not alone.  Hairdresser Brittney Figueroa commutes from northwest San Antonio to Castle Hills to the salon where she works. “I don’t think I would have a way to work. Me and my husband share a vehicle,” she says.

The half-cent sales tax Castle Hills currently levies generates about $500,000 per year for the bus service. If voters eliminate VIA,  Castle Hills would continue levying the sales tax, but Mayor Timothy Howell says there’s a little confusion over how the money could then be used.

“It could be used for curbs, it could be used for sidewalks, it could be used for things that promote business and economic development,” the mayor says.

But not really directly for streets.  Mayor Howell wants to keep VIA. “This vote is not only about our economic future, it’s about our people, It’s about how we take care of our elderly, it’s about how we function as a network in our metroplex,” he adds.

City Councilwoman Lesley Wenger wants to abolish VIA . She says the sales tax money is the only good way to pay for other needs.  “Unless we start raising the tax rate, which we would have to do every single year for three or four years to get that much money,” Wenger says. “Obviously, that’s not something most people here are interested in particularly now with what we’ve just gotten in our tax bills.”

Wenger also doesn’t believe enough people use the bus in Castle Hills.

JOEY: For residents who live in castle hills and do depend on the bus… WENGER:  We don’t know who they were. There are maybe like seven of them. JOEY: You think there’s only seven? WENGER: I walked all over the city two years ago and I’ve continued to walk the city last year and I can’t find anybody. I mean maybe there could be ten and I missed three of them or something. There’s very few people that use the bus here.”

VIA says there are 557,000 people who either boarded or exited a bus in Castle Hills in 2015. VIA CEO Jeffrey Arndt says he believes VIA provides good service. “The investment in service exceeds actually the amount of dollars that are generated in Castle Hills and we believe public transportation is an important service to any community,” he adds.

Arndt says if Castle Hills voters eliminate bus service, VIA would close stops in Castle Hills but still maintain some stops on nearby streets in San Antonio that border Castle Hills.

At least 21 disabled passengers who have transportation through VIAtrans would also lose their service. “The law that governs VIA says that essentially if they’re not in the service area, we don’t provide service,” Arndt adds.

Castle Hills Mayor Timothy Howell says Castle Hills would provide an alternative. “We would have to, as a city, contract out in order to take care of the disabled people that currently enjoy the VIAtrans service,” he adds.  

If Castle Hills cancels service it will have to pay VIA  about $800,000 before applying the money to other uses.