San Antonio’s ConnectSA program seems like it should be an easy sell.
The $2.7 billion project aims to relieve road congestion while making big improvements to public transit. Those seemingly worthwhile ambitions couldn’t come at a better time, either. The city is girding for unprecedented growth and last year inked a plan to shrink its carbon footprint.
But, as the adage goes, the devil is in the details.
A key component of ConnectSA — one that would mean a nearly 20% funding increase for VIA Metropolitan Transit — depends on voter approval in November. And observers warn that it faces long odds if proponents can’t win over two important allies in the fight — environmentally conscious residents and the working poor.
So far, environmental advocates are wary. The vote to boost VIA’s funding relies on the city shifting a 1/8 cent sales tax that currently funds the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, or EAPP. Under that redirection — dubbed VIA Reimagined — the tax set aside for the aquifer, parks and creekways would expire and not appear on the ballot.
Political experts say that without a concerted effort by ConnectSA backers — primarily, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff — the lower-income residents who make up a large share of VIA’s ridership also may not turn out in sufficient numbers. That’s vital to overriding conservative voters wary of breaking from the status quo.
“I think we need to have a greater diversity of voices when we talk about the economic aspects of the plan,” veteran Democratic political consultant Laura Barberena said. “It’s not so much about economic development — you know, building buildings — as it is about economic empowerment.”
Beyond the implications for the Alamo City’s ability to meet the future needs of its citizens, November’s vote has high political stakes.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg centered his 2017 election campaign around fixing the city’s growing gridlock. ConnectSA is his effort to deliver on that promise. Complicating matters, the mayor narrowly won reelection in a 2019 runoff against populist challenger Greg Brockhouse.
“The mayor doesn’t have a lot of political capital to spend [on ConnectSA],” said St. Mary’s University Political Science Professor Arturo Vega. “Of course, if he’d won that last election with 70% of the vote, that it would be a whole different story.”
Nirenberg said he understands he alone can’t close the deal for VIA’s new funding. In coming weeks, ConnectSA proponents will roll out a campaign that relies heavily on grassroots organizing and emphasizes the importance of public transit to reducing carbon emissions and economically empowering citizens.
Better public transit means fewer cars on the road, which should be a selling point to environmentalists, Nirenberg maintains. After all, automobiles account for as much as 70% of carbon emissions.
Beyond that, better public transit is one of the ways San Antonio — one of the poorest and most economically segregated U.S. metros — can ensure upward mobility for its citizens, the mayor also argues.
“If we don’t choose to invest in our transportation system now, we move forward with the status quo and condemn ourselves to the future we already know is coming,” said Nirenberg said. “We have reached the point of no return on transportation.”
The failure to win more money for VIA wouldn’t mean a blown engine for ConnectSA, proponents say. But, to keep the automotive analogy going, failure at the ballot box likely means the plan would sputter ahead, unable to reach highway speeds.
Courtesy of VIA
VIA officials say additional tax revenue would allow the transit system to increase the frequency of bus routes and expand its on-demand pickup program.
The realignment of the 1/8 cent sales tax would put $38 million in VIA’s coffers annually on top of its current $190 million income. That would fund rapid transit bus lanes running east to west and north to south, longer running times and more frequent stops. It would also enable an expansion of VIA’s mobility-on-demand pilot program that lets suburban customers hail van rides to the nearest bus stop like a rideshare service.
Without those components, ConnectSA would consist of only what the city and county can undertake out of their own budgets and through Texas Department of Transportation projects. Those would include a high-occupancy vehicle lane along U.S. Highway 281 North and plans for more sidewalks, electric vehicle charging stations and safe, curb-protected lanes for bikes and non-car transportation.
Nirenberg said he’s met frequently with members of San Antonio’s environmental community to assure them that the funding shift wouldn’t mean the city is turning its back on protecting the aquifer.
Under state law, the transit system can only be funded by up to one cent of locally collected sales tax. While other Texas cities fund their systems with a full cent, VIA receives just half that amount.
“The solutions are right in front of us,” Nirenberg said. “We just need to arrange the pieces in the right way.”
Even so, one potential solution is already drawing the ire of environmentalists: the mayor’s proposal to turn over aquifer protection to the San Antonio Water System.
Last month, SAWS CEO Robert Puente told the board of the city-owned utility that under such a plan, aquifer protection would only get half its current funding of around $100 million over five years.
“It’s not that we’re not interested,” in continuing the current funding level, Puente told the Express-News. “We’re incapable of spending that kind of money.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher, environmentalists warn.
The Edwards Aquifer provides 80% of the city’s drinking water, and the EAPP protects it from pollution by buying land or conservation easements to prevent development over recharge areas. To date, the program has preserved more than 160,000 acres of private land in Bexar and other counties.
But ConnectSA proponents argue that the EAPP’s success means it no longer needs to stay at its current funding level. Much of the property it’s now mulling easements to protect is in far-flung rural areas in no immediate danger of development.
“Taking money from Bexar County and giving it to rich ranchers in the west doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Bexar County’s Wolff said.
Wolff also said the county plans to fund the portion of the EAPP that protects linear parks and creekways, which would lift some of the burden from SAWS and the city.
But that part of the plan isn’t without controversy either.
In a letter posted on Facebook late last month, Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert warned that the county was rushing to a vote to allocate $200 million for creekway protection. Details of such still haven’t been shared with him and other commissioners, which he called “an insult to the intelligence of the two million people we represent.”
Protecting Water and Air
Conservation advocates warn that the funding realignment goes beyond a budget cut.
Susan Hughes, who served for more than 20 years on the Edwards Aquifer Authority board, said the plan to move EAPP under SAWS would be disruptive and jeopardize relationships with the area landowners.
“This whole program is about relationships,” she said. “You just don’t pull the rug out from under everyone like that and expect it to keep working.”
While the EAPP has purchased easements on tens of thousands of acres, Hughes argues that there’s still more to protect.
EAPP supporters also point out that the program locks in funds for aquifer protection. If that responsibility is shifted to SAWS, there will be no such safeguard to prevent money from being siphoned to other programs.
Members of the environmental community say they understand the role public transit plays in combating global warming. However, many are reluctant to back the effort until they fully understand how the city will protect its drinking water.
“So far, I haven’t seen a proposal that’s comprehensive in its treatment of both needs,” said climate activist Peter Bella, a former natural resources director with the Alamo Area Council of Governments.
But EAPP’s support goes well beyond die-hard environmentalists. Although the plan was first approved in 2000 with just 56% of the vote, it was renewed in 2010 with 66% approval. The number skyrocketed to 78% in 2o15.
As divided as San Antonio’s electorate appeared to be in the last mayoral election, local voters seem to be in agreement that the city needs to protect its groundwater.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg
“I would love to have this solved yesterday,” Nirenberg said. “We’re going to have a solution on how to handle aquifer protection solidified and solved as soon as possible.”
‘Same Old Playbook’
So far, the public face for ConnectSA has been former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, who last month presented a two-hour pitch on the plan to city council. In a speech, Nirenberg also mentioned Brooks development CEO Leo Gomez — a former executive at two local chambers of commerce — as someone he’s tapped for support.
But political experts caution that the plan proponents that members of the political old guard and Chamber of Commerce-approved business will only go so far in energizing voters.
After all, pulling former mayors out of retirement and drawing endorsements from the city’s business establishment wasn’t a winning strategy in the 2018 fight against the fire union’s punitive ballot propositions. Local voters signed off on two of those measures — a resounding defeat to City Hall.
VIA Chairman Rey Saldaña said he wants the service’s riders themselves to take a starring role in the campaign. He recalls from his days on city council how persuasive videos of VIA customers were in winning a 2017 vote to fund increased bus route frequency.
“We’re so used to pulling the playbook from the shelf and saying, ‘This is what we ran last time. Let’s do it again,’” Saldaña said. “That’s not how we win this.”
Learning from Nashville
If ConnectSA proponents want to know what happens when citizens balk at a transportation plan, they need look no further than a 2018 public referendum in Nashville. Even as that city grappled with sprawl and gridlock, voters rejected an ambitious $5.2 billion public transit proposal by a 2-to-1 margin.
The hastily composed plan didn’t line up with the priorities of current transit users and suffered because Mayor Megan Barry didn’t build public buy-in, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit TransitCenter. A key part of the failure was the political establishment’s inability to win support from grassroots organizations and people of color.
“For this to work, you really need to build a coalition that reflects the entire community,” the report’s author, Zak Accuardi, told the Current
Accuardi, who’s familiar with the issues surrounding ConnectSA, said clean water and transportation improvements aren’t mutually exclusive aims. Still, proponents of the plan will need to build consensus and take concerns about aquifer protection seriously.
“The goals of cleaner air and cleaner water are perfectly aligned, so hopefully San Antonio can find a way to thread that needle,” he added.
Should Alamo City voters reject additional public transit funding, VIA CEO Jeff Arndt said other aspects of ConnectSA could move forward. However, VIA will need to make tough choices about how it reshuffles money to stay part of the plan.
“Without additional funding, we’ll be in the situation of rearranging deck chairs,” he said.
Political observers say city and county officials may be waiting until after the March election to begin a public campaign in earnest. They also caution that waiting too long makes it harder to win support for such a complex proposal.
Wolff said he’s confident city and county leaders can effectively sell VIA Reimagined to voters if plans for protecting the aquifer and creekways are sorted out by “spring or summer.”
But observers say they may not have that much leeway.
Indeed, the details of the plan are complex and some of the key constituencies needed for its support are likely to go into election season with a hearty dose of skepticism.
“If they’re still having these kinds of conversations in May or June, that’s going to be a big problem,” St. Mary’s Vega said.
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