As most of you know, VIA Metropolitan Transit is embarrassingly underfunded.
For riders, that means a lot of waiting around for too few buses and too many transfers. Thousands of their hours are wasted every day at VIA’s 7,193 bus stops.
That’s because VIA gets a sliver of the sales-tax dollars that public transit agencies in other major Texas cities receive – one-half cent for every $100 compared to a full cent in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston.
Here’s how the tax works: the state of Texas imposes a sales tax of 6.25 percent; on top of that, cities, counties, transit authorities, and special-purpose districts are allowed to tack on another 2 percent.
Unfortunately, we are maxed out. The city of San Antonio receives 1 percent of the sales tax, VIA gets 0.5 percent, and the remaining 0.5 percent is split between aquifer protection and linear parks (0.125 percent), pre-kindergarten education (0.125 percent), and the Advanced Transportation District (0.25 percent) – for a grand total of 2 percent. The ATD sends half of its tax revenue to VIA, which is better than nothing, but not by a huge amount.
To raise VIA’s funding to where it should be, we’d need to let the other voter-approved uses expire and ask voters to OK giving VIA the combined 0.5 percent.
Which won’t happen because it would be a real pain in the ass. Pre-K, the ATD, and aquifer protection have ardent supporters who would raise hell. Besides, voters approved each of these initiatives. And I’m pretty sure zero is the number of officials willing to stand up and say, “Pre-K for SA is great, but mass transit is actually closer to a core function of local government.”
By the way, don’t even think about touching the city of San Antonio’s 1-percent slice.
But, look, we’re not about hard choices at SanAntoniomizer. We want you to be happy, your brow unclouded. So we’ve come up with a work-around.
Here’s what we’re proposing: Disguise VIA as something that we really care about and in which we are willing to invest significant public dollars.
The following are the steps VIA’s board of trustees need to take:
- Hire an expensive brand consultant to come up with a new name that totally obscures what the bus agency does. Maybe something like VeloCity or, even better, VeloCity Human. By making the name incomprehensible, you’ll give people the impression that this is a company on the move, with big, undefined changes afoot. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even move its headquarters.
- Work out a deal with developers to build a breathtaking new office building at the Pearl, preferably a structure so green the walls will actually be fashioned out of native grasses. Think about it. How many millions of public dollars, through incentives and bond financing, have flowed into the Broadway corridor over the Decade of Downtown so far? It’s VeloCity Human’s turn to scoop up some of that beautiful money with a Pearl HQ.
- This is probably the most crucial step: VeloCity Human’s trustees must convince one of the suburban cities in which the company operates – say, Elmendorf – to put together a relocation package for its headquarters, which is currently located on San Pedro Avenue. Suddenly it’s a competition! What are you going to offer, San Antonio and Bexar County peeps? After all, you surely don’t want to be the ones accused of “losing” VeloCity Human to Elmendorf. It’s true that such a move would have no impact on the regional economy. Economics aren’t that parochial. But good news for VeloCity Human – relocation politics are.
- Work out a hefty package of giveaways to secure your move to the Pearl. This will be tricky. Because VeloCity Human is a public-owned entity, it doesn’t pay property taxes. So no tax abatements or tax rebates. Instead, the company will have to negotiate a bunch of big grants and zero-interest loans.
- Once the deal is done, and VeloCity Human has settled into its new home at the Pearl, trustees will be in an excellent position to go to the city and county, and say: “As you know, what we do is very important to the community. It must be because we’re headquartered at the Pearl, and you spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars to help us get there. Also, as our new name hints, we’re changing our business model. Just consider these nine words: Technology platform, multi-modal things, disruption, millennials, and driverless stuff. We’ll leave these duffel bags on your desk. Please pack them with tax revenue, and we’ll drop by tomorrow to pick them up. Thank you.”
There’s no reason to think this scheme won’t work. It’s certainly more compelling than blathering on about making life better for people who have to take buses to get to work, school, or the doctor.