Is a streetcar line the same thing as light rail? The state Attorney General has declined to rule on the question asked by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who is battling officials in Bexar County who want to use special district funds for downtown streetcars.
Wentworth and a group of others say that a sales tax measure approved by voters in 2004 to create the Advanced Transportation District specified that the proceeds were not to be used for light rail, and that an effort to spend some of the sales tax proceeds on a streetcar project violates the referendum.
Supporters of the $190 million VIA Metropolitan Transit streetcar project, who say it will help with downtown development, claim that streetcars are not the same as light rail and therefore are fair game for some of the proceeds of the quarter-cent sales tax.
Wentworth in March asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to rule on the matter, after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff asserted in a letter to Wentworth and state Rep. Lyle Larson that the tax money could be spent on an urban streetcar project.
In his letter to Wentworth, Wolff said that “a light rail system is NOT the same as a street car system. Street car systems are slower than light rail, make more frequent stops, utilize smaller vehicles, and operate within the inner city.”
“I believe they are parsing words,” Wentworth said in an interview with Texas Watchdog. “They do have a contract with the voters. They didn’t keep their word.”
Wentworth noted that the top two proponents of the streetcar project are Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.
In 2000, voters emphatically rejected a light rail system, 70 percent to 30 percent. The supporters came from the business community, the same place that much of Wolff’s campaign funding comes from.
Wolff’s contributors for the first half of this year include:
- Bart Koontz, who owns and operates a number of development firms that have ownership in millions of dollars in Bexar County property.
- William Sneckner, of Star 7 Properties, which owns retail store properties.
- Sam Dawson of Pape-Dawson Engineers, which has done work for the county.
- Sam Barshop, co-founder of La Quinta Inn hotels.
- Gordon V Hartman, of Velma Development, which owns a number of subdivisions around the county. Hartman also owns the San Antonio Scorpions, a pro soccer team that will play at a stadium about 12 miles north of downtown.
- Dan Leyendecker and Derek Naiser of LNV Inc., a consulting firm and engineering company for developers.
- Mark Granados, a retail center developer.
- Rio Perla Properties, which owns millions or dollars of properties around the downtown San Antonio area.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo of streetcar by flickr user M. Ortiz Gallery, used via a Creative Commons license.