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VIA May Ask Voters For Sales Tax During November Election

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Courtesy VIA Metropolitan Transit

VIA Metropolitan Transit may ask voters this November to approve a 1/8th of a cent sales tax to help secure its financial future. The 1/8th of a cent currently funds aquifer protection and the linear creekway trail system. It expires next year and is now up for grabs.

The VIA board will vote formally on the issue Thursday morning.

The original plan for the tax was transportation initiatives under Connect SA, a plan envisioned by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. But the mayor nixed that plan in early June during his state of the city address.

“This is a painful, but necessary, decision for us,” Nirenberg said last month. “Direct action to ensure a healthful economic recovery is mandatory; it means rebuilding now. We will take the time we need to fully understand the depth of the pandemic’s financial damage before making new investments.”

COVID-19 has sent many budgets into uncertainty, and VIA — as the bus system and transit authority — is no exception. Over the next five years, VIA is projected to have a shortfall of $111 million. And that’s already after adjustments and $90 million in funding from the CARES Act.

“We've put together a plan. It would require making some staffing cuts and cuts to benefits, some level of service reduction. Eighty percent of our dollars are in service. So it's hard to have any appreciable impact without touching service, but some service impacts,” said VIA CEO Jeffrey Arndt. 

City Manager Erik Walsh sent a memo to council members in late June saying VIA doesn’t have a two-year immediate deficit. However, Arndt said the agency is requesting the tax money to fund transit, not to fill a shortfall. 

“We’re pursuing the 1/8th cent to continue in the effort to create a transit system that this city needs and deserves,” Arndt said. 

The tax would generate between $36–38 million — but only half of that would go to VIA. The rest would go to the City of San Antonio and to Bexar County. Arndt says VIA’s only source of funding is sales tax. Currently VIA is funded by a half-cent sales tax, but by comparison, other major cities in Texas receive a full cent. 

Mayor Nirenberg said he believes this is not the time to ask for voters to support the sales tax vote and there are other clear priorities.

“Which is that we’ve got to get people back on their feet. We’ve got to get them back to work so the time is not right to be talking about expansion about transit services in a plan that was put on the shelf by VIA,” Nirenberg said during a COVID-19 briefing last week. 

VIA did put parts of its long-term VIA Reimagined plan on hold due to the pandemic.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff agreed with Nirenberg, saying ridership at VIA is down right now.

“The timing is just not right. I think we all want to help on public transit, but they need to develop their plan with what resources they have now, and then maybe we can go to the voters next year,” Wolff said. 

VIA feels the opposite. Arndt said the public needs investment now, especially for people in service jobs who are not able to work remotely.

“We believe we’re an important part of helping with the recovery because, again, the people that they’re trying to lift up are the people that need access to opportunity. And transit is the way they get there,” Arndt said. 

Last Tuesday night, the VIA board was going to vote to start the process of asking for a sales tax election. But the board tabled the discussion. 

The VIA board — which acts as the advance transportation district’s board as well — decided to wait until July 2 for the vote. That didn’t sit well with board members like VIA secretary Ezra Johnson.

“This is a crisis. It is now; it is happening now. It is not a crisis that is going to be happening two years from now,” Johnson said. 

VIA’s board meeting begins at 10:00 a.m. Thursday. If board members vote to start the process, it won’t immediately call for the election. However, the decision will inform the city and county that VIA, and the ATD, will plan to take the issue to Bexar County voters. 

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules