TX: VIA's Ties to Castle Hills Intact, for Now

Aug. 20--VIA Metropolitan Transit's place in Castle Hills, once heading toward a public vote in November because of the desire to see the money that backs public transit shifted to road repairs, is safe, at least until next year.

Castle Hills' City Council took no action by the deadline Monday to get VIA's continuing operations on the November ballot. In addition, the transportation agency's image seems to have been refashioned by its commitment to allocate $380,000 to bus stops and associated improvements that could include worn Castle Hills roads.

Both Mayor Tim Howell and Councilman John Squire have said they want to know more about what VIA's $380,000 commitment can do for the city before saying whether they'll support a public vote on ending the agency's ties to Castle Hills.

"They stepped up to the plate and that was huge on my part," said Squire.

But two council members elected to office in May have been strong advocates of a public vote on cutting ties with VIA, and while they acknowledge no vote is possible this year, they see a good possibility the issue will resurface as soon as May.

"I still feel there is a need for a vote on staying with VIA," said Councilwoman Lesley Wenger, one of VIA's critics. "The people still want to have that vote."

Councilman Douglas Gregory, the other newly elected council member who has called for a vote on VIA's future, said with so much uncertainty over how the VIA allocation can be used and so much need for revenues to fix streets, a vote on VIA next year seems assured.

"I think council will want to put this on the ballot in May," he said.

Critical to that debate will be whether streets adjacent to VIA's bus stops can be repaired with the $380,000 or just to the stops themselves and the surrounding improvements.

Charlie Gonzalez, VIA's senior vice president of public engagement, said while the money made available to Castle Hills and other suburban cities in its service system is targeted to bus stops, bus pads and associated improvements, street repairs also could qualify if those repairs are needed because of the bus stops.

Castle Hills will have to identify a road project for funding with the dedicated allocation, and if it qualifies, repairs would be funded, Gonzalez said.

VIA has yet to provide cities with many details on the new allocation, but Gonzalez said that should change later this month.

The senior VP said VIA recognizes that Castle Hills leaders need to decide if the voters should get to say whether the nearly $460,000 that VIA receives from sales taxes in Castle Hills should be terminated and diverted to streets.

But he thinks that the agency made a strong case for keeping its relationship with Castle Hills intact.

Mayor Howellsaid public support for VIA appears to be growing. He too could become a VIA backer if the current $380,000 commitment and possible future allocations can go towards long overlooked roads.

But until that is clarified, he said the city will stay in wait-and-see mode on a future vote to eliminate bus service.

wpack@express-news.net

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