Almost two years after the company that owns Megabus initially asked to operate out of VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Centro Plaza transit center, VIA is now reviewing its request.
The deal would allow the private intercity bus company — which offers low-cost transportation to Austin, Dallas, and Houston — to pick up and drop off passengers using one of VIA’s six bays at Centro Plaza just west of downtown.
Currently, the Megabus pickup and drop-off point is a parking lot on Probandt Street just north of U.S. Highway 90. If a passenger wants to connect to a VIA route, the closest has a half-hour wait between arrivals. Getting to a transfer station takes an additional half-hour.
“We’d love to connect or find ways to be closer to local public transit,” said Sean Hughes, vice president of public affairs for New Jersey-based Coach USA, which owns Megabus. “It is really important for our passengers to have an easy time finishing their first and last mile to our destinations, and that’s usually someone picking them up or using local transit.”
If VIA and Megabus come to an agreement to coexist at Centro Plaza, San Antonio would not be the first city in Texas where public transit and private connect. In Dallas, Megabus occupies two bays in a transit center run by the municipal transportation service, DART. According to its contract, Megabus pays DART $240,000 annually to utilize the space.
This is the third time Megabus has formally sought to connect its riders with VIA. In 2012, when the company first began service in San Antonio, Megabus requested access to VIA’s Ellis Alley Park and Ride near St. Paul Square, but the City of San Antonio did not approve the request. Megabus later looked at using space around VIA Villa, a campus that includes Centro Plaza.
“During those discussions, Megabus opted to explore a different site,” spokeswoman Lorraine Pulido said in an email.
Rachel Benavidez, VIA’s director of corporate communications, said that the coronavirus pandemic redirected the transit agency’s attention to other matters and put discussions with Megabus on hold. The request to use Centro Plaza was made in January 2020, shortly before pandemic lockdowns began, disrupting the transit service’s operations.
VIA will have to evaluate whether Centro Plaza has the capacity to host the increased traffic with Megabus, spokesman Andy Scheidt said. The station is their most-used transit center, with 15 bus lines. On weekdays, Centro Plaza sees 1,495 bus stops, and more than 1,100 stops on weekends.
“It’s not possible at this time to accurately anticipate what the increase in passenger traffic would be if Megabus operations shared access at a VIA facility,” Scheidt said in an October email. “Without accurate data, we will not speculate or predict which transit center, if any, could best provide reasonable access for a commercial bus line like Megabus.”
According to federal transportation law, like other transit systems that receive federal funding, VIA “may not deny reasonable access for a private intercity or charter transportation operator to federally funded public transportation facilities, including intermodal facilities, park and ride lots, and bus-only highway lanes.” The federal statute goes on to state that reasonable access can be determined by considering “capacity requirements” of both Megabus and VIA’s regular operations.
Intercity bus operators like Megabus and Greyhound are a critical part of the state’s transit infrastructure. They provide an affordable option to move between cities for residents who don’t have a car or can’t afford a plane ticket.
Since the pandemic, however, the industry has been struggling to get back on its feet. Greyhound, the largest bus operator in the country, saw an average of just 10,000 passenger journeys per day during their fiscal year 2021 compared with 40,000 during the previous period.
One Texas Megabus driver said that San Antonio trips and riders remain below their volume from before the pandemic. Hughes declined to provide more specific ridership numbers.
Hughes said Megabus has met with VIA to discuss using Centro Plaza and that the company is waiting to hear back from the transit agency’s leadership on next steps. VIA plans to “conduct internal discussions with our Planning, Operations and Safety teams,” VIA Deputy CEO Edward Johnson said in an Oct. 4 letter to Megabus.
“Subsequently, a review will be conducted with our President/CEO, prior to a discussion with our board of trustees,” Johnson wrote. “As we move this process along, I will keep you posted.”