Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks with Jonnel Ruiz who wakes up at 4 a.m. to get to his job by 7 a.m.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks with Jonnel Ruiz who wakes up at 4 a.m. to get to his job by 7 a.m. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

City Council will meet Thursday to decide whether to help increase funding for VIA Metropolitan Transit to improve bus frequency and travel times citywide.

City staff has drafted an ordinance, outlining how the City would fund 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.

The City would identify funding sources other than Advanced Transportation District (ATD) revenue each year during the budget process.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) has been a vocal proponent of the City bolstering VIA, saying more money could help enhance service for bus riders on vital routes and corridors. When Saldaña was a bus rider for one week in 2015, he saw first-hand how many commuters rely on VIA.

Saldaña spent the early hours of his Wednesday morning speaking with riders and drivers at the Kel-Lac Transit Center on the Southwest side. He saw many riders lined up waiting for their buses well before 7 a.m.

“This is not a bus system riding around without passengers,” said Saldaña. “People are getting to work, to school, to doctor’s appointments, to (buy) groceries.”

Leaders at VIA such as board member Steven Hussain have told Council that current funding options are limited, and have resulted in inadequate frequencies and longer wait times for many bus riders.

Based on the conversations Saldaña had with bus riders Wednesday morning, he said many commuters fear being late for their next transfer.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks with 64 US 90 Express driver Helen Thomas about how long it takes to catch the next bus if they miss it.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks with 64 US 90 Express driver Helen Thomas about how long it takes riders to catch the next bus if they miss it. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“What hurts the most is when a bus is a few minutes late and you miss your transfer,” he explained. “I asked, ‘What happens if you miss your transfer?’ They say they’re late to work by an hour because it’s an hour until the next bus comes.”

That’s why many riders try to arrive at a transfer station or other bus shelter early, Saldaña added. He talked briefly with Juana Mendez and her young son, Ramon Montero, as they awaited their bus. Mendez doesn’t drive, so she has relied on bus service for 10 years.

“These are our community members, our neighbors,” Saldaña said.

One problem that compounds the issue of further investing in the City’s mass transit system is a matter of perception, he added. Many Texans believe that practically everyone has a car, so our investments should go toward street and highway infrastructure.

“But you’re leaving out a very important sector of the community, probably the most vulnerable, which are the folks who don’t own vehicles,” Saldaña said.

This limits job opportunities for many people, who either try to live to close to their work or face long wait and commute times in an increasingly congested city.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks with Juana Mendez and her son Juana Mendez as they wait for their bus to downtown.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) speaks with Juana Mendez and her son Juana Mendez as they wait for their bus to downtown. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Saldaña spoke with another commuter, Jonnel Ruiz, who wakes up at 4 a.m. to get to his job at 7 a.m.

“If you’re late, you’re out of luck because frequency is bad,” Saldaña said.

In previous discussions, most Council members have agreed that enhancing VIA’s funding is a good idea. Currently a half-cent Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) tax funds VIA.

Increasing the MTA tax to one cent would generate $140 million for VIA. Mass transit agencies in Austin, Dallas, and Houston all receive one full cent from their local sales taxes.

Additionally, VIA receives half of the revenue generated by the ATD, which is funded by part of the local sales tax. The rest of the ATD revenue is split between the City and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

The City uses its ATD revenue to help address basic infrastructure needs, such as sidewalks and traffic signals.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff greets VIA Metropolitan Transit President/CEO Jeffrey C. Arndt. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff greets VIA Metropolitan Transit President/CEO Jeffrey C. Arndt. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Saldaña and Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) co-chaired an ad hoc committee that studied VIA’s funding model and the impact of possibly reallocating more ATD revenue to VIA.

Saldaña originally proposed increasing VIA’s take in district revenue. But some Council members have been lukewarm on that idea or reallocating general operating City funds, fearing the latter could negatively impact City services.

VIA has a plan for the infusion of new funds: improving frequency on 10 routes and upgrading travel times and capacity on five major transit corridors.

VIA officials say 60% of the existing ridership is within one quarter-mile of the proposed service improvements. VIA would use its capital funds to buy 24 new buses to accommodate the improvements.

Saldaña said he is confident that Council will back the VIA proposal Thursday.

“We understand that any big long-term fix to a public transit system won’t happen overnight, so what we’ve done is phase in the approach — the financing of this project,” he said.

VIA Metropolitan Transit President/CEO Jeffrey C. Arndt prepares his downloaded book as San Antonio Library mascots Tecolote exists the bus.
VIA Metropolitan Transit President/CEO Jeffrey C. Arndt prepares his downloaded book as BiblioTech’s mascot Techolote exists the bus. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

But the City is making its commitment now so that VIA has time to buy its new buses, hire more drivers and prepare for the service improvements, he added.

According to Saldaña, this also would be another step toward implementing the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan and making San Antonio a multi-modal community.

“These are the basic levels — not waiting 30 minutes but 12 minutes, not waiting an hour but 30 minutes,” he said. “We care about these people who are part of a growing population of hard-working, blue-collared senior/elderly, and I think Council understands the idea.”

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.