As transit advocates and officials come to terms with the sudden loss of VIA Board Chairman Shelton Padgett, they say it will not be easy to fill the void left by the agency's most effective spokesman.
Padgett died of a heart attack Saturday at 56. He helped forge a vision of the future for VIA Metropolitan Transit. He had been busy explaining to voters and city leaders why the sales tax should be increased to make that vision a reality.
"He was a main, main force at VIA," said board member Leo Lopez. "I know there is not a single board member that can come close to what he was doing. Somehow we're going to have to reach real deep."
Padgett, a labor attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, served VIA during some of the agency's toughest times.
He joined the board in October 2001, just after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and when the economy was dragging. The board elected him chairman in March 2003, as VIA was overhauling bus service and facing its biggest deficit in nearly a decade.
Padgett's most significant effort involved an upcoming referendum to raise the sales tax to get VIA back to where it was a decade ago, before an unfunded federal mandate to provide more service for disabled riders.
The agency, which collects a 1/2-cent-per-dollar sales tax, set a Nov. 2 vote to increase the tax by a 1/4-cent. In a deal struck with highway promoters, half the extra $34 million a year generated by the increase would be spent on transit and half on roads.
Those who knew Padgett say his political connections, affable personality and enthusiasm for interacting with the public made him a strong voice for a higher sales tax.
"He was the right guy at the right time for VIA," said board member Tim Tuggey. "It's a major void."
Jay Moore, who has followed transit issues in San Antonio and used the bus system since he moved here in 1959, said Padgett may have been VIA's best chairman ever, and the sales tax election could be in trouble now that he's gone.
"There's a very good chance it'll fail unless they find someone who has the same kind of talent," Moore said.
VIA board members say they don't know who will be the next chairman, but can hold an election as early as next week.
"It's hard for me to tell right now. I'm trying to gather my thoughts," said Vice Chairman Charles Munoz, who will temporarily oversee the board. "I don't want to believe it."
Padgett is the second consecutive VIA chairman to die. Charles Shannon died in his sleep of an unknown cause Feb. 4, 2003.
Munoz also has health problems. He suffered a heart attack in May and was in the hospital last week for observation.
Padgett was on a family outing in the Hill Country. While eating in Welfare he had trouble breathing, and later died while being driven back to San Antonio. He left behind a wife and two children, ages 23 and 8.
"Everyone knew him as the lawyer's lawyer and a strong core of the community," said his son, Shelton "Ted" Padgett Jr. "I knew him as my dad, who took me to baseball games and to the beach and gave me money when I needed it and helped me through the bad times."
Padgett, born in San Marcos, received his bachelor's degree from Southwest Texas State University in 1970 and his law degree from St. Mary's University in 1973. He was the first St. Mary's graduate to clerk for the Texas Supreme Court.
He began his career in San Antonio in 1976. His civic activities included service as a director of the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District and the San Antonio Mobility Coalition.
A prayer service will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Paul's Catholic Church, with a funeral at 10 a.m. Thursday. A viewing will be held 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday at Mission Park Funeral Chapels North.