(From left) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg listen as outgoing Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) formally accepts the role of VIA Chair.
(From left) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg listen as outgoing Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) formally accepts the role of VIA Chair. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Rey Saldaña, who is completing his fourth and final term on San Antonio’s City Council, is Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s choice to lead the VIA Metropolitan Transit board.

While the VIA board elects its chair, the mayor and county judge endorse a candidate for the spot. Saldaña, whose last day as District 4 councilman, is Wednesday, would replace Hope Andrade as chair. Nirenberg and Wolff announced their selection Tuesday afternoon at a Westside transit hub, one of the projects Andrade oversaw during her five years leading the board.

Nirenberg said Saldaña was a natural choice to head VIA’s board as transportation planning and policies will be a focus of his second term.

“During his eight stellar years as a City Councilman for District 4, Rey has been a consistent and successful champion for VIA and transportation as a whole,” Nirenberg said. “Rey understands the importance of getting more people to ride the bus and attracting choice riders. For all these reasons, I think you will join me in believing that Rey is the perfect choice to follow Hope in the role of VIA board chair.”

As a councilman, Saldaña demonstrated his commitment to public transportation by taking the bus to work for a month. Since 2017, he has served as chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, where he advocated for a City budget increase for VIA.

Since 1977, VIA has been funded by a half-cent sales tax approved by voters, while transit systems in other large Texas cities receive far more funding. VIA received $4.3 million from the City budget for fiscal year 2018 and $10 million in 2019, money used mostly to increase frequency on its routes. VIA’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is $238.9 million.

Saldaña said one his main goals if he is confirmed as the board’s chair is to make 2020 “the decade of mobility” by increasing funding and access to both current and future riders.

“The story of VIA is the story of many San Antonio residents,” he said. “It started from behind and it’s expected to go as far as any other transit agency in the state with less.

“We know that the VIA system is underfunded, and it impacts that future rider that says, ‘I want VIA to be that transit system that is blowing me past traffic.’ We are going to lay down our claim on this decade and get people moving in this city in more ways than one.”

Saldaña has been working for education advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas since earlier this year as his fourth and final Council term wound down.

In his position as VIA chair, he said his first priority is to talk to the people who will use VIA to get a sense of what they need.

“When they say that I need something to make this better, it’s usually not just a lever change, it’s a system-wide change,” Saldaña said. “That is why I think I am going to get on a journey of talking to riders and our drivers to ensure that I know what they need to do their job more efficiently. If we are going to be successful in bringing more funding to VIA, it’s going to be at the permission of the San Antonio resident.”

At Tuesday’s event, the mayor and county judge also honored Andrade, who is stepping down later this month.

“She stayed at a time of real personal sacrifice to continue in this demanding role,” Nirenberg said. “Our community owes her a huge debt of gratitude for her service.”

Andrade originally announced that she would step down January 2018, citing personal reasons. She has served as VIA’s board chair since 2014. She is one of three chairs of ConnectSA, a nonprofit formed to develop a comprehensive transportation plan for San Antonio. VIA figures prominently in that plan.

“He is someone with vision and passion for this community and a deep seeded understanding of VIA’s mission and what we do,” Andrade said of Saldaña. “He is a proven leader.”

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick contributed to this report.

Laura Morales is a freshman studying journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a contributor to The Daily Texan.