Editor’s Note: The following is CityScrapes, a column of opinion and analysis.
Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit
VIA Metropolitan Transit needs to be told, “No, now simply is not the time.”
Right now, the economy, and our lives, are too uncertain.
And VIA’s request on the November ballot for a dedicated tax in perpetuity — a tax that won’t start until January 1, 2026 — is entirely too broad and ill-defined.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacted a dramatic, devastating impact on San Antonio and our city’s economy. It has, unfortunately, educated a great many people about the fragile economic circumstances faced by a large portion of the local populace. It’s also revealed vast inequalities in computer and internet access across large swaths of San Antonio. But while some aspects of our lives have begun to get back to “normal,” the impact of the pandemic and the resulting economic dislocation is far from done.
Perhaps no sector of the local economy has been hit as hard as the hospitality sector. With travel sharply down from historic levels and restaurants and bars still not fully open, the local visitor economy is a fraction of what it once was. Downtown hotel occupancy for August 2020 was just 37%, with sharply lower average daily rates than in 2019. While some weekend leisure visitors are returning, midweek hotel occupancy is notably lower.
The problem we face is that the convention and meeting business, the foundation of our downtown hotel, restaurant and retail business, has effectively evaporated. The Henry B. Gonzaléz Center has seen dozens of events cancel, with cancellations continuing for events scheduled for 2021.
The prognosis for conventions and meetings is similarly bleak, countrywide. National figures from hotel research firm STR show group demand — a block of 10 or more rooms booked together — for September 2020 at just about 15% of the September 2019 total. And between the enormous economic loss over the past few months and the large-scale adoption of virtual meetings and conventions, the future of the convention business — and the fortunes of people whose jobs are tied to it — remains highly uncertain. We may simply never see the return of many of the conventions and events that filled the HBG Center, the Alamodome and the city-owned Grand Hyatt hotel.
We are looking at impacts on the city’s revenues and budget that may well extend for a decade. And we’re also looking at human needs that will extend for years as well. In this environment, there is simply no sensible reason to commit the sole remaining portion of the local sales tax — a tax strictly limited by the state — to VIA.
While the plan on the ballot isn’t technically a tax increase, it does tie up that share of the sales tax, which could be used for other purposes. We don’t really know what the San Antonio economy will look like in 2026, the year the VIA tax boost would begin. VIA’s pitch for the “Keep SA Moving” proposition on the ballot keeps talking about the 1.6 million new residents living here by 2040. But the events of the last few months should remind us of how uncertain that forecast is, particularly as our economy continues to suffer. We may have far more pressing community needs in 2026 than VIA’s proposed additional HOV lanes and its effort to “plan and develop an Advanced Rapid Transit (ART) network,” whatever that might actually be.
The VIA board pressed to get the tax scheme on the ballot now, repeatedly arguing that other Texas transit agencies have higher tax rates. And Mayor Ron Nirenberg chose to bend, as long as the city could use that tax revenue for a time.
What we need from the transit agency that gave us a vast light rail plan in 2000 that the voters overwhelmingly turned down, followed by an expensive proposal for downtown streetcars, is far more specifics — and a commitment to require voters to reapprove the tax after a few years. That will give the community an opportunity to see how and what VIA actually delivers.
To commit the sales tax to VIA now and for all time is simply asking for too much, too soon.
Heywood Sanders is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
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