VIA's new chairman has one thing on his mind: the bus system's survival
Dressed crisply in a well-tailored suit, Tim Tuggey, the new chairman of the VIA Board of Trustees, would stand out on a city bus. Although Tuggey is only an occasional patron of the No. 9 that runs along Broadway, regularly hopping the bus and talking to his fellow riders might be one way to wage his public relations campaign about VIA: demonstrating that even high-powered lawyers ride the bus and persuading voters to approve a 1/4-cent sales tax increase, a portion of which would help fund VIA, the city's sputtering public transportation agency.
The extra money would pay for service upgrades, including 24-hour buses in the Medical Center District, and would prevent VIA from further eliminating bus routes. Another portion of the funds would go toward an Advanced Transportation District for fixing potholes, upgrading roads, and easing congestion on the freeways. The sales tax would never expire. `See "Can't get there from here," June 17-23, 2004.`
"VIA needs this money if it is to keep up with the growing needs of our riders," said Tuggey, who was elected as chairman August 10. In his third term as a board member, Tuggey replaced Shelton Padgett, who died unexpectedly July 31. "VIA is absolutely critical to a part of our community."
San Antonians can vote on the sales tax increase during the presidential election November 2.
While the VIA referendum should be a slam-dunk, it has stirred political tensions, since at least three other ballot initiatives were slated for the November election. Because Mayor Ed Garza and City Council want to protect VIA's interests - they want only one referendum on the ballot, so as not to "confuse" voters - those important referenda, including the Aquifer Protection Initiative will have to wait until next year.
"I think voters can handle both initiatives," Tuggey said of the VIA measure and the Aquifer Protection Initiative, also known as Prop 3. "That doesn't mean I want more than one on the ballot. I support the efforts associated with Prop 3. In my opinion we need an opportunity for the community to look exclusively at transportation and look at that in relative isolation."
It doesn't hurt VIA that Tuggey's firm - he's a managing partner of Loeffler, Jonas, and Tuggey - has contributed to several City Councilmembers' campaigns: During the reporting period of January 1 to June 30, 2004, the firm gave $500 each to Enrique Barrera, Chip Haass, Patti Radle, Ron Segovia, and Joel Williams. Tim Tuggey as an individual contributed $500 to Carroll Schubert. Shelton Padgett contributed $250 each to Schubert, Williams, and Art Hall; he gave $100 to Segovia.
Loeffler, Jonas, and Tuggey is also the City's lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
City Council has booted other initiatives off the ballot, including a Crime Prevention District and a Better Jobs Initiative. Tuggey denies that his firm influenced Garza or the Council in that decision.
"I would say 'poppycock.' I'm doing this because I've been involved with VIA since 1998, before I joined this firm; this firm doesn't represent VIA. The board has a separate legal duty to look out for its system and riders. One of the things I'm most concerned for VIA is that everything is done with the highest level of integrity."
As board chairman, Tuggey will have to lead VIA in changing public attitudes toward mass transit. Despite VIA's annual 38 million trips - ridership has decreased 20 percent over the past 10 years because of service cuts - there are thousands more San Antonians who have been no closer to a VIA bus than when they're stuck behind one at a stop. That Tuggey and his board are trying to entice the non-rider through the transportation district speaks to the importance of this voting base to VIA's future.
Except in the Northeast, where the transportation culture promotes Wall Street brokers and day laborers to ride together on the subway, mass transit is viewed not as an democratic benefit like the public library, but as a service for the poor. And until the public comes around to the notion that mass transit reduces traffic congestion, helps the environment, and saves wear and tear on the roads - regardless of a rider's economic status - part of VIA's mission will be enticing people to get on the bus.
"To some folks there is this attitude that the only way to do this is to make it available, and with your service efforts slowly convince folks that this is a viable alternative," Tuggey said. "But we need to get creative. We need to keep figuring out how to keep transportation more relevant."
Servicing higher-density areas, especially the northern suburbs - and after Toyota builds its assembly plant, the southern suburbs - represent a new frontier for VIA, as its busiest routes are clustered inside Loop 410.
If the ballot initiative fails, the Advanced Transportation District will not be formed, and VIA will reduce the number of bus lines, cutting service to the elderly, disabled, and those who depend on VIA to commute to their jobs. "This is one of greatest challenges we have," Tuggey said. "We have a system here that is dying." •
By Lisa Sorg