Friday, February 06, 2009

“In 20 years, we'll have a cash flow that everybody will envy.”

Details offered on bus, toll agency


By Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

Details in the latest version of a plan to merge the city's bus and toll-road agencies, aired at a public hearing Thursday, have VIA Metropolitan Transit doing the swallowing.

And a firewall that only voters could dismantle would prevent the super agency from using sales tax funds and bus fares to subsidize any of some 70 miles of planned toll roads now on the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority's books.

But if the fused agencies ever build a toll road and pay back the bonds, ongoing toll fees could then help pay for light rail or other transit projects without a public vote.

“We will find a way to build a (toll) road,” Alamo RMA Chairman Bill Thornton said at a joint meeting of the two boards prior to the hearing. “In 20 years, we'll have a cash flow that everybody will envy.”

VIA board member James Lifshutz said he wants to make sure the sales tax and bus fares aren't raided to foot some of the costs for toll roads.

“At the end of the day, toll roads need to finance transit and not the other way around,” said Lifshutz, an advocate for developing light rail.

No need to worry about that, Thornton said, because transit never generates surpluses.

“Twenty years from now, transit will still be subsidized,” he said. “The revenue box is going to be subsidized forever.”

Meshing the agencies also won't guarantee a public vote on toll roads as officials had said in December, when the idea was to pull them into an Advanced Transportation District passed by voters in 2004. Campaign promises at the time forbid ATD spending on tolls or rail without such votes.

Under VIA's umbrella, a toll-road vote would be needed only if local sources such as a sales tax were used, not any state money, said attorney Tim Tuggey, who's drafting state legislation to merge the agencies.

“That (promise) was tied to the ATD vote and ATD money,” said Tuggey, a former VIA and ATD chairman who now advises the Alamo RMA.

The ATD, with a board membership identical to VIA's, would also be blended into the overarching agency.

The ATD collects a quarter-cent per dollar sales tax, with 1/8-cent spent on city streets and state highways and the rest on buses, while VIA oversees a half-cent for buses.

The super agency might also get a chance to ask voters to enact other local taxes and fees. A city-county Transportation Task Force last week called for a change in state law to make it happen, and in coming months might recommend an election to raise the sales tax.

Ballot language, not yet written, could tag those new funds to help pay for projects ranging from light rail to toll roads.

Three speakers at the hearing supported the proposal to merge the agencies while two voiced doubts. Among concerns is that a draft bill still isn't publicly available.

“What are we supposed to comment on,” toll critic Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom said later. “It's insane.”

Just before the hearing, Tuggey outlined what the legislation would do, saying:

The 11-member VIA board would pick up two more seats, with the new members initially coming from the board of the subsumed Alamo RMA.

The city and county would each appoint an extra member to the board, six and four, respectively. Suburban cities would continue seating two.

Other board rules would stay the same — two-year terms, eight-year cap on service and ethics obligations.

The VIA, ATD and Alamo RMA boards, San Antonio City Council, Bexar County Commissioners Court and the Texas Department of Transportation would all have to agree.

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