Transit tax shift could spark lawsuit
By Kenric Ward
June 30, 2016
San Antonio is using an “advanced transportation” tax to pave costly sidewalks and bike paths, and the diversion of funds from road projects is inviting a lawsuit from a taxpayer coalition.
“This is déjà vu all over again. It may be time to go back to court,” said Jeff Judson, a local businessman and senior fellow with the conservative Heartland Institute.
When voters approved an Advanced Transportation District in 2004, they added a quarter-cent to the local sales tax to fund transit, traffic safety and highway projects in Bexar County. The tax generates $60 million annually.
Half the proceeds are supposed to go to road construction, but the city has been spending its share on sidewalks and bike paths.
San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor says, “We cannot build our way out of growth.” Judson says the city isn’t even trying.
“Their actions show a hostility to building road capacity,” he told Watchdog.org. “In the process, they’re leaving money on the table.”
ATD passed with the proviso that every $20 spent on roads would be matched with $80 from the state. Sidewalks and bike trails do not qualify.
After a decade of short-changing roads, the city is now considering redirecting $10 million of its ATD funding to VIA, the regional bus system that already receives half the ATD revenue.
The shift would leave the city about $5 million for sidewalks and other infrastructure ventures.
Putting that in context, San Antonio recently announced it will spend $9 million widening a half-mile of sidewalk on Commerce Street downtown. The work includes ripping out a bus lane.
“There’s a lot of gold plating that goes on, so money is spent on things like bike paths rather than roads because they want to discourage driving,” said Randal O’Toole, a transportation expert with the market-oriented Cato Institute.
Meantime, city officials continue to plump for a light-rail system – even after voters twice rejected rail proposals.
A coalition of taxpayer groups sued to block a streetcar project and won passage of a 2015 charter amendment prohibiting the city from raising funds for rail without a voter referendum.
A new group composed of the Homeowner-Taxpayer Association, the San Antonio Tea Party and League of United Latin American Citizens is weighing a lawsuit over the city’s diversion of road money.
“Using (ATD) to further subsidize VIA … would be a violation of the promises made to taxpayers and would be subject to legal challenge,” Judson wrote in a June 23 letter to Taylor.
“If only 3 percent of local trips are taken on transit, but 93 percent are taken using our road system, why should a disproportionate share of scarce funding be dedicated to transit that has no hope of relieving congestion or adding the capacity we need?” he asked.
VIA spokeswoman Lorraine Pulido said the bus system “has not specifically requested ATD funding from the city.”
“The city’s Ad Hoc ATD Committee is, however, discussing various options,” she told Watchdog. “These could provide travel time and capacity improvements.”
In a statement to Watchdog, Taylor said 25 percent of the ATD funds “were dedicated to streets, sidewalks and other mobility infrastructure, and to other advanced transportation or mobility enhancement purposes.”
“Any proposal to use ATD funds will help us achieve the purposes approved by the voters, and we will ensure that the citizen oversight component is also fully engaged before any changes are made,” the mayor said.
Judson isn’t banking on Taylor’s assurances or priorities.
Blasting what he calls a “flawed public engagement process,” the former Olmos Park city councilman said that “despite the long history, expertise and public influence of light-rail skeptics, none have been asked to participate in any substantive way in the discussion over ‘multi-modal’ transportation.”
Link to article here.
Proposed ATD Cash Swap Called 'Theft and Fraud'
By Jim Forsyth
June 28, 2016
Veteran anti toll road crusader Terri Hall has a couple of concise words to describe a scheme, which will be up for City Hall consideration tomorrow, to take $16 million in sales tax money the voters told would be used for street maintenance, and give it to VIA Transit.
"This is theft and it is fraud, upon what the voters were told at the time the ATD sales tax election occurred," Hall said.
1200 WOAI News reported this morning that the city is considering handing over the 25% of the ATD funding, which comes from a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2004, to VIA for it's master plan upgrade, despite the fact that the literature given to the voters by the city to convince them to support the sales tax increase stressed that the city's portion of the money would go exclusively to street projects.
"Half of the ATD funds will improve highways, streets, and related infrastructure," the brochure stated, and then flatly added: "The City of San Antonio will have more funds to improve streets."
But according to a memo provided to City Council, the City of San Antonio will have no ATD funding to improve streets if this cash transfer goes through. The memo concedes that 'intersection safety improvements,' 'pedestrian safety improvements' and 'traffic signals,' all meant to be funded with the $16 million from the ATD, will have to be scrapped if the cash transfer is made, or money from elsewhere in the budget will have to be found to complete the projects, taking funding from other projects.
This is the actual wording that voters relied on when they approved raising their sales taxes back in 2004:
"ONE FOURTH OF ATD FUNDS WILL BE USED TO INCREASE THE CITY'S RESOURCES FOR STREET IMPROVEMENTS. THE CITY PLANS TO MAKE SPECIALIZED IMPROVEMENTS ALONG MAJOR ARTERIAL STREETS TO ENHANCE CONNECTIVITY BETWEEN NEIGHBORHOODS AND MAJOR ROADWAYS."
The literature then goes on to explain exactly the projects that would be completed with the city's 25% share of the ATD funding (the other half for street and roadway improvements goes to TxDOT for improvements to state numbered roadways)
At no time, does the literature the people relied on to vote on the ATD say anything like 'at City Council's discretion, the city's share of this money may be transferred to VIA for use in mass transit projects.'
Hall says the City is actually proposing giving away a lot more than $16 million.
"Because it will allow us to have a local pot of money to allow us to use as matching funds to get more of our federal and state funds for roads," she said.
She says half of the ATD funding is designated for mass transit and half is designated to roads.
"Very few people rely on transit in our community," she said. "Granted, we don't want to take away any of VIA's money that was promised to them, but to take half of the road collars that 90% of the traveling public use on a daily basis, and at a time when you see nothing but empty buses on our highways."
Hall said if this scheme goes through, voters should remember when the City presents a huge bond issue next spring.
"The voters should never trust what this City Council tells them again."