Keeping It Rail
The Rev. Richard "Tank" Tankerson, the chairman of VIA, San Antonio's transportation authority, says his agency "has to be more than just a bus company." This Saturday, San Antonio voters will decide whether Tankerson is right, as they head to the polls to vote on VIA's proposed 54-mile-long, $1.5 billion light-rail plan. Voters are being asked to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund the project. If they approve it, the first trains will begin running in 2008 and construction will continue through 2025.
VIA's arguments for light rail are quite similar to those being used by Austin's Capital Metro, and the success or failure of the referendum may be a foreshadowing of Cap Metro's vote in November. Like Cap Metro, VIA says light rail will help direct growth and economic development, decrease traffic, and reduce automobile emissions. And like Cap Metro, VIA says San Antonio is growing rapidly and something must be done to deal with the city's traffic. In addition, VIA says the new light rail system, which will be powered by overhead power lines, will be debt-free and have lower operating costs than buses.
But VIA's campaign, which is being run by Austin-based political consultant Eddie Aldrete, is facing significant opposition. Although opponents have far less funding than Keep San Antonio Moving (http://www.keepsamoving.com), the pro-light rail group that has already spent nearly $200,000, they are attacking VIA's cost estimates and viability. The opposition is led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that gets much of its funding from San Antonio millionaire James Leininger. Since January, the foundation (http://www.tppf.org) has produced more than half a dozen press releases and reports criticizing VIA's project.
Bob Martin, vice president of the Homeowner-Taxpayer Association of Bexar County, also opposes light rail, and insists the project won't decrease congestion because "in San Antonio, only 8% of employment is in downtown. And it does nothing to reduce air pollution. It's the mother of all boondoggles."
Supporters of the project insist the Alamo City, the second-fastest growing large city in America, must do something now to alleviate traffic congestion. Kathy Martinez, a spokeswoman for Keep San Antonio Moving, says it's "inevitable that we will need a system like this. Transportation alternatives are going to be necessary. This is a long-term investment, and it needs to start today to keep up with the growth of San Antonio."
Despite the backing of most of San Antonio's biggest businesses, including H.B. Zachry, the San Antonio Spurs, and USAA, as well as an endorsement by the San Antonio Express-News, some light rail supporters are quietly admitting that the proposal is likely to be defeated on Saturday. They point out that other cities, including Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix, needed several referenda before they got approval for their light-rail plans. And last November, voters in four cities turned down proposals for tax increases that would have paid for new or expanded rail systems.
The light-rail plan could also be hurt by low turnout. Early voting has been very light. In the March 14 primary, less than 14% of San Antonio voters went to the polls. In low turnout elections, the anti-tax forces are generally thought to have an advantage.
"Neighborhoods are indifferent and the business community is indifferent," says one source close to VIA. "There's no real demand for light rail. The issues of congestion and air quality are not apparent today."
Whatever happens in San Antonio, Capital Metro will likely benefit from the lessons learned in Saturday's election. If it fails, Cap Metro can study the mistakes. If it passes, Cap Metro can use that to help convince Austinites that we need light rail, too.