Councilman Rey Saldaña checks his phone trying to locate the route he is currently on. Photo by Scott Ball.
In 2015 Councilman Rey Saldaña used the bus service to make all of his appointments in meetings in an effort to learn the system from a passengers perspective. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City Council members heard plenty about a need to boost VIA Metropolitan Transit service during its B session on Wednesday.

While most council members agreed that VIA is in need of more funding to bolster its revenue stream, several resisted the idea of using general operating City funds or more Advanced Transportation District (ATD) money.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) raised concerns about the public transportation entity’s inadequate funding in a growing city 14 months ago. On Wednesday, he suggested that City staff seek out alternate funding options and research the impact that reallocating City operations money to VIA could have on the general fund budget.

Additionally, he and his colleagues agreed that the City should look to the State Legislature and other partners to find long-term funding solutions.

Saldaña said it is vital to maintain talks about helping VIA secure more funding to better serve its riders. He added that future additional funding could upgrade frequency for bus riders on key corridors and routes around town.

“We move mountains to find highway funding,” Saldaña said, alluding to the power of policymakers and lobbyists. “But who’s talking for the working class folks who ride the bus?”

After Saldaña originally proposed transferring ATD revenue last year, City staff explored the issue and presented its findings to the Council’s Transportation, Technology and Utilities committee.

Council then examined the matter and decided to form an ATD ad hoc committee, which studied VIA’s funding model and the viability of allocating more or all of the ATD revenue to VIA. Saldaña co-chaired the ad hoc committee with Councilman Ray Lopez (D6).

In 2004, San Antonio voters approved using a portion of the local sales tax rate to fund the creation of the ATD to help improve traffic, streets, and public transit. VIA gets half of the ATD revenue, and the rest is split between the City and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

VIA receives more funding from the half-cent Metropolitan Transit Authority tax (MTA) that accompanied VIA’s launch in 1977. City staffers said one half-cent increase to VIA’s MTA tax would generate $140 million.

VIA’s counterpart agencies in Austin, Dallas, and Houston each get one full cent from their respective local sales tax. The ATD ad hoc committee, which last met June 1, recommended transferring $10 million in ATD funds annually to VIA, with a phased-in reallocation over four years. No money would be moved in fiscal year 2017, which starts Oct. 1.

The dilemma for local officials was reflected in the City identifying more than $1 billion in sidewalk gaps alone. ATD funds help to meet needs such as sidewalks and traffic signals.

Outside of the newly adopted FY 2017 budget, which includes road maintenance money, the $850 million bond that the City plans to propose in May 2017 will call for $450 million in street, bridge, and sidewalk projects.

(Read More: Council Mulls $850 Million Bond Before Heading to Committees)

On Aug. 10, the Council’s Transportation, Technology and Utilities committee recommended that City staff explore funding options outside of the City’s ATD take.

VIA has laid out a plan for the $10 million infusion: improve frequencies on 10 routes and improve travel times and capacities on five major transit corridors. About 60% of VIA’s existing ridership is within one quarter-mile of the proposed service plan, VIA officials have said. VIA would use its capital funds to purchase 24 new buses to support the improvements. Saldaña said such improvements could produce reduced waits for bus riders. For riders whose daily routines and livelihoods are dependent on the bus system, getting to work, school, or medical appointments on time is essential.

“It’s about giving people their time back,” he added.

VIA board member Steven Hussain told the Council that VIA, while underfunded, “strives to do more with less,” but the effect of its funding limitations is felt daily in the form of inadequate frequencies and longer wait times.

“Currently, almost three-quarters of VIA’s service operates on 30-60 minute frequency at some point during the day,” Hussain said.

He added that more funding could bring about service improvements, which in turn could help VIA meet expectations laid out in long-range transit plans featured in SA Tomorrow and Vision 2040.

“These substantial investments will require collective efforts among many partners and, ultimately, funding from multiple sources,” Hussain said. “We recognize there is no single solution.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley and other Council members empathized with VIA’s plight, especially after viewing a short video in which riders said they could benefit from improved service.

Still, Council members and City staff are concerned that using ATD or non-ATD general fund budget money could negatively affect City operations, even lead to reductions in staff and programs.

Mayor Ivy Taylor urged caution: “We certainly see a need for a robust mass transportation system, but we’re in a pickle because options are limited.”

Taylor said she would like to see a bigger picture with details about the routes and corridors that VIA’s improvements would benefit. Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) agreed, saying the City must administer ATD revenue based on its intended use.

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) applauded Saldaña for presenting a strong case for finding ways to bolster VIA’s funding.

“Doing nothing is not an option for us,” he added.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) agreed with Nirenberg, adding that there should be a push to ensure policy-making is responsive to community needs such as improving mass transit service.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said there is no denying the need for “more efficient, more frequent service.” However, she feels the City should get a better feel for how transferring funds would impact City services. Viagran added that the City would be best off waiting until after the 2017 legislative session to have more detailed talks. State lawmakers are poised to discuss issues such as revenue caps as a form of local tax relief.

“The need (for service improvement) is shown clearly, but I don’t know if it’s a uniform need across the city,” Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) said. He also pushed for talks to continue after the 2017 legislative session. Because VIA service extends into small cities and suburbs such as Kirby, Windcrest, and Converse, Warrick said, those municipalities should be included in future discussions and potential partnerships toward funding answers.

Councilman Cris Medina (D7) agreed: “We shouldn’t be solely responsible for coming up with solutions.”

Lopez said, one way or another, the City should be proactive and indicate its willingness to help VIA with funding. “If we sit around waiting for Superman, we’ll be waiting forever,” he said.

Transportation and Capital Improvements Director Mike Frisbie said reallocation could impact various general fund budget services, from transportation and deferred road maintenance to animal spay/neuter activities and library branches. He added that the City should explore long-range funding strategies by seeking consensus among local transportation partners on joint state legislation, and aligning federal legislative agenda with VIA and Bexar County.

Sculley said enhancing VIA service should be one part of a larger discussion. “I think (we) should go bigger. I think we should be talking about a robust, multi-level transportation system that includes light rail,” she added.

In the end, Saldaña suggested taking ATD out of the discussion, but asked for specifics on how a non-ATD transfer would impact City services, as any transfer would be phased in over a few years.

Saldana also expressed concern that City staff’s presentation felt exaggerated on the idea that any reallocation would mean immediate budget cuts.

“I want to find out what those tough choices will be exactly,” he added. Taylor replied City staff has a responsibility to give the best informed recommendations possible.

Top image: Councilman Rey Saldaña checks his phone to locate his current route on a VIA bus.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.