Texas advocates share why transit funding referendums passed

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Passage of transit funding referendums in two large Texas cities hinged on coalition building, learning from past mistakes, project planning and effective outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic, their supporters say.

Voters last month in San Antonio and Austin overwhelmingly approved measures.

In San Antonio, 68% approved a shift of a one-eighth of a cent share of local sales tax to public transit, beginning in 2026. In Austin, a measure to transform transit won roughly 60%.

While the measures varied — Austin’s plan includes $300 million in anti-displacement funds along transit corridors, essentially building on an affordable housing package from two years earlier — they carry similar themes to winning a transit campaign.

A driver wears a protective mask while driving a Capital Metro bus in downtown Austin, Texas.

They pinpoint where transit needs are greatest, said Ben Fried, communications director for the New York-based advocacy group TransitCenter, which hosted a webcast on the Texas votes.

“That’s not always the case with transit referendums,” Fried said.

“Often in the attempt to win votes to get a majority, the packages get watered down. You see these political compromises where the expansion projects might serve far-flung places, where the demand for transit is not that great, or new rail lines are built along highway medians, or where it’s politically easy to construct but not in an effective way to attract ridership.”

In San Antonio, the “Keep SA Moving” initiative by VIA Metropolitan Transit looks to boost service on the bus-centric system, primarily along main corridors, while expanding mobility options to outer regions and funding innovation, including navigation and payment capturing,

Laura Barberena, owner of political consultancy Viva Politics and a campaign manager for the vote yes campaign, said a 25-year plan called Connect SA, issued a few years ago, helped lay the groundwork.

Behind Connect SA were Henry Cisneros, former mayor, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and now vice chairman at municipal bond firm Siebert Williams Shank & Co; former Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade; and former San Antonio City Attorney Jane Macon.

Advocates secured endorsements on the referendum from Democrats and Republicans, and labor and business organizations as well as social justice and religious groups, Barberena said. “We were sending out a big message that this was not a Democrat or Republican issue, that it was a San Antonio issue,” she said.

VIA also provided free rides early in the pandemic, thus generating goodwill. “That elevated the brand even more,” she said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg campaigned around transit during his successful run in 2017.

“It was exciting to see a mayor really want to jump on something like this,” Barberena said. “When you think of transportation, that’s something you’re not going to see an immediate return on.”

In Austin, the $7.1 billion package for the Project Connect transit improvement plan will materialize through a property tax increase of 8.75 cents per dollar of valuation. Two transportation-related ballot measures passed easily.

The $300 million in anti-displacement housing funds along rail corridors could be a national blueprint, said Susan Somers, member of the Project Connect ambassador board and vice chair of the City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission.

“I don’t know of any other city in the nation, honestly, that’s done this,” she said. “All eyes are on us to see how we’re going to succeed with this.”

Plans call for two light rail lines, a commuter rail line and a bus rapid transit line running along its own right-of-way. They also include a downtown transit tunnel, three MetroRapid limited stop bus routes, more park-and-rides and neighborhood connectors.

“Some of the things really captured people’s imagination, like the transit tunnel,” Somers said. “I never thought, even two-and-a-half years ago, that we would have a subway through downtown Austin. But we’ve really reached the level of capacity that maybe our trains can’t [move] in one block.”

This year’s campaign evolved from a failed referendum six years ago, when 57% of voters rejected a $1 billion bond issue for a road-and-rail improvement package that even some transit groups opposed. Local organization Our Rail called it “a bad urban rail plan.”

According to Somers, the housing component helps win over residents worried about gentrification from the regional tech buildout.

“We were definitely under a microscope with that,” she said.

“You’re always going to have people who don’t like trains, don’t like transit and don’t like taxes, and so you’re always going to have this ground level of people who are going to oppose you, and you don’t want to add anyone else to that coalition.”

“We talked about why it makes sense to pass this, even in a pandemic.”

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Transportation industry Bond elections State of Texas City of San Antonio, TX City of Austin, TX City of New York, NY Henry Cisneros