A VIA Metropolitan Transit bus drives down East Houston Street. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Considering a projected decrease in sales tax revenue next year, the VIA Metropolitan Transit board unanimously passed a $247.5 million operating budget on Tuesday.

The fiscal year 2021 operating budget will be $1.9 million smaller than VIA’s 2020 operating budget of $249.4 million. Steve Lange, the agency’s chief financial officer and vice president of fiscal management, told board members VIA expected a slight decrease in sales tax revenue in 2021.

This was the first time in his 14 years of working at VIA that an operating budget decreased from the previous fiscal year, Lange said.

“Our key budget goal for [fiscal year 2021] is to focus on retaining and returning ridership, which has been adversely impacted with COVID-19,” Lange said. “There’s going to be a focus on employee and rider health and safety. For instance, we’re going to continue with social distancing, also require the use of masks, and continue with extra cleaning.”

Of the approved 2021 budget, $1.6 million will pay for coronavirus-specific cleaning costs and personal protective equipment for staff; bus operators are supplied with face masks and hand sanitizer. And VIA is in the process of retrofitting all of its buses with hard plastic shields to protect bus drivers from potentially contagious droplets, VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt said. Some vehicles already have them, while others are protected by a transparent material similar to a shower curtain.

“I believe by the end of the calendar year, we’ll have the shower curtain removed and have permanent installations [in every bus],” Arndt said.

Adding a plastic barrier between riders and bus drivers is only one of the ways VIA has adapted to the coronavirus pandemic. Even though ridership plummeted in the spring, the transit agency added “spacer” buses to help maintain social distancing on buses. The maximum rider limit remains 16 per bus, and extra buses are deployed to certain routes if demand exceeds that limit, Arndt said.

Since March, VIA has contracted its service to what it has dubbed “essential” service levels – reducing some routes and upping frequency on other higher-usage ones. VIA also waived fees for riders in March, reinstating them on June 1. Riders are still required to wear masks to board a bus, and bus operators have their temperature taken before beginning their shift, Arndt said.

Ridership levels are about half of what a non-pandemic time would have, Arndt said. Because the hotel and restaurant industries were heavily impacted by the pandemic, Arndt estimated a significant portion of VIA’s ridership loss came from people who lost their jobs or were furloughed.

“We’ve been pretty steady at 50 percent [ridership],” he said. “I believe much of that is driven by the fact that the kinds of jobs … that people in our market [work in] typically require them to be at work. You can’t clean a hotel room remotely. You can’t serve in a restaurant remotely. You have to be at the desk at the health clinic. So many of our folks are working those kinds of jobs.”

VIA intends to maintain its “essential” service levels moving forward, which saves a projected $4.9 million in the 2021 budget. Service changes proposed for January 2021 will be discussed and adopted at the next VIA board meeting in October after VIA staff gathers public input. Arndt said he isn’t sure when the transit agency would begin thinking about returning to pre-pandemic levels of service.

“Certainly, that’s our intent,” he said. “But I think our riders will tell us when we need to be doing that. … I don’t think by calling us, but we will see the ridership return.”

A majority of the operating budget was allocated to paying bus operators, maintenance workers, and other staff at VIA. About 80 percent of the budget goes to delivering services, which includes maintenance cost, purchasing new vehicles, and fuel, Arndt said. The remaining 20 percent goes toward administrative costs.

The approved operating budget also includes $1.2 million for educating San Antonians about the Keep SA Moving plan, which would be funded by a one-eighth-cent in sales tax revenue currently being used for Edwards Aquifer protection and linear creekway trails, and the election administrative fee to put a proposition on the ballot. VIA proposed collecting that one-eighth-cent starting in 2026, after the City of San Antonio finishes collecting the revenue for its workforce development program. Voters can weigh in on both of those propositions in the November election.

“I think we have a very solid plan that will lead to more frequent service, faster service, and more flexible service,” Arndt said.

Board members unanimously approved an $84.9 million capital spending budget and a five-year $173.7 million capital spending plan on Tuesday as well, a significant portion of which will go toward building a new paratransit facility at a former nightclub.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.