Bus stop number 61639 at Cento Plaza. Photo by Scott Ball.
VIA Metropolitan Transit bus stop number 61639 at Centro Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City Council voted Thursday to delay committing City funds to VIA Metropolitan Transit, a monetary infusion that advocates said would help to improve citywide bus service.

Mayor Ivy Taylor and Council members agreed that VIA is underfunded through its current funding model, but those who voted to delay action are worried that the Texas Legislature might impose local revenue caps and that allocating up to $10 million yearly to VIA could lead to budget cuts in City services.

“I cannot debate or disagree with the need (to help VIA),” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who voted for the delay. “It’s more about timing and the conversation.”

The original proposal was for the City to provide VIA with $2.2 million in fiscal year 2018 and $6.5 million in fiscal year 2019.

The City would provide $10 million in fiscal year 2020 and each year afterward. No money will be provided in this current fiscal year 2017.

During each year’s budget cycle, the City would primarily look at its general fund for the money to send to VIA. The general fund supports daily basic City operations, from public safety and infrastructure to libraries and parks and recreation.

The money would go to upgrading frequency on 10 routes, and travel times and capacity on seven major corridors where the goal would be 12-minute service from 6 a.m.-6 p.m. and fewer stops.

VIA has already been scheduled in early 2017 to seek debt financing to replace its 450-bus fleet.

VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt speaks to the history of Ellis Alley. Photo by Scott Ball.
VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

VIA President and CEO Jeffrey Arndt said if the City was to make a funding commitment now, VIA could add 29 more buses into that package order to prepare for the service improvements. VIA would have another look at bus purchase financing in summer 2017.

Arndt explained how VIA’s overall funding mechanism is lower compared with its counterparts in large Texas cities such as Dallas, Austin, and Houston. VIA receives income from a half-cent Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) tax, and half of the revenue generated by the Advanced Transportation District, which is supported by part of the City’s sales tax.

“VIA’s funding for transportation is about one-third to one-sixth of other agencies in the state when you look at the service area size we need to cover,” Arndt said.

“As a result, we end up with a service that has to be spread fairly thin. We have large portions of our routes that operate once every 60 minutes.”

VIA is working to improve service citywide through its five-year SmartMove plan, which includes upgrading existing bus shelters and developing new transit centers in key parts of town, such as Stone Oak and the Brooks City-Base area.

“Upon completion of the five-year plan, you will have with this the one half-cent system,” Arndt said. “We will really have no flexibility.”

Arndt said as more hubs with job opportunities spread further out from the urban core, more riders face longer commutes in an increasingly congested city.

VIA board member Steven Hussain told Council that faster bus service can determine the level of employment for someone who must rely on mass transit.

“Seventy-five percent of our routes are 30- to 60-minute routes,” he said. “If we make this investment – we’re talking about improving the routes for 60% of our 41 million passenger trips a year – that is meaningful.”

The proposed improvements, Arndt added, could cut a rider’s commute by one hour per day, on average.

Councilman Rey Saldaña puts his bicycle in an on-board bike rack only available on VIA Primo. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Rey Saldaña puts his bicycle in an on-board bike rack only available on VIA Primo. Photo by Scott Ball.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), a vocal supporter of the City boosting VIA’s revenue stream, said there are opportunities to pursue funding sources – including the state and federal governments – in addition to what the City and Bexar County could provide.

Pledging City funds toward VIA today also helps to fulfill part of the S.A. Tomorrow multi-modal plan, Saldana added.

“Our policy objective is to give an assist to VIA, our transportation/multi-modal partner, to service the people who are our residents and our constituents,” he said.

Saldaña said not allocating funds until FY 2018 and using a phased-in approach should address valid concerns surrounding how that allocation could affect the City’s budget. He also said he shares concerns about what might happen budget-wise at the state and federal levels in 2017.

Local officials have a chance to address a long-time challenge, Saldaña said, which is that San Antonio has become a city friendlier to vehicles than to people without their own transportation.

“When I decided to ride the bus for a month, I’d hear a lot of stories that are very real, from people who cannot take a job because they don’t own a vehicle,” he said.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). Photo by Scott Ball.

Viagran acknowledged VIA’s underfunding and how that might impact the City’s long-range multi-modal transportation mission. But with increasing worry that state lawmakers may impose property tax revenue caps, she said, the City should have more discussions and wait until state and federal budget matters are clearer in 2017.

“Extreme measures like revenue caps are likely to have more support today than the last time we talked about them,” she said.

There may be a way to leverage City funds with more money from other sources in the near future, Viagran added, rather than commit the City to the amount proposed Thursday. She then moved to delay committing the funds for VIA.

Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) countered with a motion to vote “yes” on the measure. He explained that by committing funds this week, the City would show the legislature that it fully supports boosting mass transit and hopes the state will feel similarly.

“I think we’ve all adopted the mantra that we need to move people, not cars,” he said.

Council members Roberto Treviño (D1) and Ron Nirenberg (D8) agreed with Saldaña and Lopez to act now.

“It’s time to put our pencils down and take action,” Treviño said.

“It’s putting a stake in the ground,” said Nirenberg, adding that the new funding could help to address San Antonio’s urban sprawl. “This is about expressing priorities.”

Council members Joe Krier (D9) and Mike Gallagher (D10) agreed with Viagran on moving more slowly.

Mayor Ivy Taylor speaks about the importance of aquifer protection and water quality. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Mayor Ivy Taylor. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“We have a real likelihood of revenue caps,” Krier said. “I don’t want to wake up to next year’s budget cycle and face a choice between street maintenance and pot hole repair or honoring our commitment to funding VIA.”

“What concerns me are those possible future (budget) cuts,” Gallagher said. “How are people going to walk to bus shelters and … trip on the sidewalks.”

Mayor Taylor said the City wants a robust mass transit system where VIA would be just another option, not a last resort, for commuters citywide. But she shared the same concerns of Viagran and Krier.

“Delaying action today doesn’t necessarily preclude us from (having more discussions),” Taylor said. She also commended a working group led by the San Antonio Mobility Coalition to seek out all viable sources of funding to help VIA.

Council Salutes the Marine Corps

The Council on Thursday also recognized the U.S. Marine Corps’ 241st anniversary with guest military speakers. The youngest and oldest Marines at the ceremony, Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Soto and Maj. Norbert Hart, helped cut a cake in celebration.

Hart currently is deputy city attorney for the City. Soto presently works for the locally based Company H, Cryptologic Support Battalion.

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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.