With the sudden departure of VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board chairman Rey Saldaña to Washington, D.C. to lead an education nonprofit, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff have nominated former board chair Hope Andrade to replace him.
The value of Andrade returning, they made clear, would be to help shepherd a transportation funding proposal through a November election. The traditional endorsement authority carried by the mayor and county judge makes Andrade’s selection as VIA chair all but certain, observers said.
“There will be a vote, of course, but I don’t anticipate any opposition,” said VIA boardmember Bob Comeaux, a labor union organizer. “I think everyone on the board would welcome our former leader, knowing there will be a seamless transition and that she has the respect of everyone in transportation.”
Her previous VIA tenure over parts of two decades would leave Andrade, 70, with only nine months to serve as chair before the eight-year state term limits on board membership would bump her off. That’s long enough, Nirenberg and Wolff noted in a statement Tuesday, to include the November elections, when the transportation plan offered by the ConnectSA nonprofit that Andrade co-chairs would go before voters as a sales tax referendum.
Saldaña, who is leaving the VIA position after serving just nine months, will become the new CEO of Communities in Schools. Saldaña served four terms as the District 4 councilman and frequently supported education programs.
“This was indeed unexpected,” said Comeaux of Saldaña’s quick exit. “But Rey will be phenomenal in that post and we wish him luck.”
In 2008, Republican Gov. Rick Perry appointed Andrade to be Secretary of State, making her the first Hispanic woman to hold that post. The San Antonio businesswoman also is a former chair of the Texas Transportation Commission and with business partner Lisa Wong won a decade-long $100 million contract to run San Antonio’s new fleet of river barges. As a councilman running for mayor, Nirenberg was the only vote opposing the Andrade-Wong selection. He favored a Chicago firm.
“Hope Andrade has a unique level of expertise in transportation and an abundance of leadership experience and skill,” Nirenberg said in Tuesday’s statement. “Hope’s steady hand at the wheel will be invaluable as we move toward an important transportation election in November.”
“Hope has been a long time champion for our community and especially for transportation,” added Wolff. “Under her tutelage, we’ve seen a lot of wonderful and positive change come to VIA. … She’s now coming back to this role at a critical time.”
Andrade has served with Wolff and former Mayor Henry Cisneros to co-chair ConnectSA. They, along with Saldaña and Nirenberg, have been drumming up support for the five-year, $1.36 billion plan that, among other things, would deliver widened major highways, more bike paths and dozens of new buses that could reduce wait times to as little as seven minutes. That latter idea is part of what VIA is calling VIA Reimagined.
The plan is controversial because it would be partially funded by transferring some $40 million in annual revenue from a 1/8-cent sales tax that has been used to acquire land to protect the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, the source of much of San Antonio’s drinking water, from pollution from suburban development.
Critics remain skeptical of any plan that meddles with a popular program that has been approved by voters four times over the past two decades.
Andrade might not have been chosen for her credibility in Republican-heavy districts that have traditionally opposed mass transit initiatives, but “being a Republican can’t hurt,” Comeaux acknowledged.
“She is respected across party lines,” he said, offering a personal anecdote.
“I was very new on the board, and there was some issue that the whole board supported and was ready to vote on and I simply said, `I am uncomfortable. I don’t have enough information yet to make a decision.’ And Hope was the one to say, ‘Let’s hold off for a month,’” Comeaux recalled. “She’s always seeking consensus.”