Four decades and hundreds of millions of passenger trips since VIA Metropolitan Transit became the first metropolitan transit authority (MTA) in Texas, the community is calling for major improvements to their mobility choices – service options that have not changed much since 1978.
The Texas Legislature authorized dedicating up to a full penny of sales tax for use by MTAs. Local leaders at the time asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax. MTAs in Houston, Dallas and Austin, all of which were created after VIA, have a full penny of sales tax dedicated to their community’s transit systems. Over the last 20 years, Dallas and Houston each generated more than $5 billion more than San Antonio for transportation investments.
Faced with unprecedented growth and congestion over the next decade, the question of how to fund transit is again a major topic and a key issue for our community’s continued growth and prosperity.
San Antonio-area residents have been historically and systemically underserved because of the funding shortfall that began 40 years ago. It’s meant large swaths of VIA’s service area, which is similar in size to Houston’s, go unserved while other areas have long wait times between bus arrivals. We must do better for those who ride VIA and for motorists whose commutes are stretching each year.
Before beginning his tenure as VIA Board chairman in 2019, then-San Antonio City Councilman Rey Saldaña helped spark conversations among city leaders about how transit service can and should be improved as a quality of life issue for all. In 2015, Saldaña’s pledge to park his car for a month and experience the challenges of transit ridership shined a light on the shortfalls underfunding has created.
“Years of underfunding have given us a system that hasn’t been able to keep up with the tremendous growth of our city and doesn’t provide a viable transportation option for most San Antonians,” Saldaña said. “Now is the time to make bold choices about how we can get moving and stay mobile in our community.”
Saldaña declared this the “Decade of Mobility” and inspired calls to action from local elected, community, and business leaders.
With an additional one-eighth-cent sales tax, VIA would have funding necessary to implement VIA Reimagined, its 10-year strategic plan called that also serves as the transit backbone for the comprehensive ConnectSA plan. With voter approval, an extra one-eighth-cent would go toward building an Advanced Rapid Transit network of dedicated transit lanes, expanding the core bus system and developing smart transit solutions like VIA Link on-demand service. Without additional funding, VIA’s community-driven plan to transform transit service cannot be realized.
The VIA Reimagined Plan is designed to create more service, more choices and more opportunity with a system that gives people who live in and visit San Antonio a convenient and affordable alternative to driving. And, it gives people who drive the benefit of better traffic flow from fewer single-occupancy vehicles sharing the already-crowded roads. It all depends on better funding.
“Having access to a half-cent rather than a fully penny has been a serious disadvantage for our community which keeps growing in every way, except in transit options,” VIA President and CEO Jeffrey C. Arndt said. “A better-funded transit system will deliver better frequency and reliability but also help to grow the region’s economy to stay competitive with the rest of the state.”
Texas does not provide funding to VIA or its peers. Underfunding keeps our region from leveraging local dollars for major federal investments. The only way for San Antonio to begin to catch up to its peer cities — and offer transit services that would be a viable option for most — is through tapping into a larger piece of the one-cent sales tax increment, which state lawmakers decided decades ago would be the main source of funding for Texas MTAs.
The additional funding would, in part, support the initial phases of Advanced Rapid Transit and open VIA up to federal dollars reserved for agencies that operate such transit systems.
The portion of the one-cent sales tax authorized for transit but not used for such in San Antonio has its own history. For years after the Legislature made it available for transit, it sat unused until 1989, when voters approved it for construction of the Alamodome. That half-cent raised enough money by 1994 to cover the dome’s costs, and it was again set aside.
Since then, voters have been asked to approve a one-eighth-cent tax to fund aquifer protection and a one-eighth-cent tax to fund Pre-K 4 SA – both important programs that could legally be funded by other means, including state dollars.
“These have all been laudable projects and programs, and San Antonio is a better place because of them,” Saldaña said. “Now VIA has an opportunity to better meet the needs of our community by continuing with a more permanent source of aquifer funding while expanding transit service, increasing our frequency and creating the 21st century transportation system that San Antonio and Bexar County need.”