San Antonio’s transit agency hopes revitalize downtown by spending tax dollars on a rail streetcar project, but some officials say they have vowed against it, according to My San Antonio:
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declined to wade into San Antonio’s streetcar battle Monday, saying his office wouldn’t opine on whether local officials are breaking a promise to voters by planning to spend millions of dollars in sales tax money on the project.
The decision disappointed state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, a critic of the streetcar funding plan who asked for the attorney general’s opinion in March.
“This is not the answer I was looking for — or expected,” Wentworth said.
At issue is how sales tax revenue can be spent by VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Advanced Transportation District, or ATD. Voters approved the district in 2004 to pay for things such as improved highways and transit services.
At the time, officials promised that the money would not be spent on light rail or toll roads. Today, the city, the county and VIA want to spend up to $92 million in ATD money on a rail streetcar project they say would help revitalize downtown. The overall cost of the two streetcar lines is $190 million.
Supporters such as Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said streetcars differ from larger, faster light-rail trains, so ATD dollars can be spent on streetcars. The election ballot did not specifically exclude use of the money for urban rail projects.
“When you really get down to it, with the ballot language they voted on, it was damn clear that we could do this,” said Wolff, who called the attorney general’s decision a victory.
In a March 26 letter, Wentworth told the attorney general that local officials had entered into a contract with voters by promising not to spend ATD money on light rail. He asked whether they were breaking that contract by spending the money on streetcars.
“Various community leaders publicly assured voters that ATD funds would not be used for this purpose,” Wentworth wrote. He cited an Oct. 18, 2004, news article quoting Tim Tuggey, chairman of VIA’s board at the time, who said of the ban: “It’s about as binding as I think you can make it.”
The news article referred to a VIA board resolution that would prohibit spending the tax money on light rail, but Wentworth didn’t provide a copy of the resolution to the attorney general’s office.
It was one of the reasons why the attorney general said he couldn’t opine, saying the matter was surrounded by “questions of fact.”
“If it was so damned important, why didn’t they pick up the phone and call me and say, ‘Would you mind forwarding us a copy of the resolution?” Wentworth asked.
Wentworth also argued that a fourth of the ATD money is supposed to leverage federal matching dollars for transportation projects, which the streetcar plan doesn’t accomplish. The attorney general said that issue also involved “questions of fact that cannot be determined in an attorney general opinion.”
Wentworth said Abbott’s office essentially punted the issue to critics, who would have to spend money on a lawsuit to challenge the streetcar project and resolve those fact questions.
“It’s probably going to be up to these voters as to whether or not to file a lawsuit,” Wentworth said. “The problem with that, of course, is it’s very expensive. And they shouldn’t be put in that position.”