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Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4) made a strong pitch to the public and his fellow council members on Thursday to get on board and give VIA Metropolitan Transit’s bus system a try.
Saldaña, who parked his car Monday and declared himself a bus rider for at least one week, might not have much company right now in terms of business professionals, Millennials and college students who own cars. That’s probably going to change soon.
VIA CEO Jeff Arndt, who appeared before City Council on National Dump the Pump Day, as in gas pumps, announced that VIA’s entire fleet of 450 buses will be equipped with free WiFi by Sept. 1. That’s in addition to the sweeping fleet overhaul already underway that will see the majority of VIA’s buses retired and replace with new, more fuel-efficient and sustainable vehicles.
Suddenly the ride to the city’s higher education campuses may be more appealing to students with Internet access and office workers catching up on email and fine-tuning reports.
Saldaña isn’t the only council member to ride the bus, although he was the only one who showed up with photographs of him at the bus stop ready to load his bike on the VIA bike racks for the ride from his home on the Southside to City Hall. Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) said she rides regularly and thinks it’s easier to board the bus with her child than navigating a child seat in the back of a vehicle. Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) talked about taking his entire staff on a bus ride from his district to downtown, with the bus arriving on time “to the second.”
One evening a couple of months ago, Saldaña said in an interview, he and his wife decided to be adventurous and use the VIA bus as their method of transit to and from their destination on a date night. While waiting at the bus stop, Saldaña posted a photo of himself in front of a VIA bus to Facebook, which generated a considerable response.
Saldaña said people posted on his Facebook thread, and even privately messaged him, writing that they couldn’t believe he, as a council member, was taking the bus. Saldaña said the Facebook incident highlighted a larger problem. If people were surprised that a council member was riding the bus, he said, what does that say about the transportation system as a whole?
“You go to (Washington) D.C. and you see Congressmen taking the Metro in and out of work,” he said. “Why isn’t San Antonio standing up to say something about how bad this is or how much reform it needs?”
Aside from the shock factor of Saldaña’s bus ride, the incident stirred some community members to challenge him to ride the bus for a month. After hearing numerous anecdotes from individuals who take the bus to and from work every day, Saldaña said, he decided to accept the challenge.
Saldaña spoke of one Southside resident who works as a housekeeping manager at one of the Hyatt Hotels in downtown San Antonio. The individual spends nearly four hours on the bus each day during his commute, a ride that takes 15-20 minutes each way by car.
“He posed the question: ‘Why is there such a bad transit system in San Antonio?’” Saldaña said.
This particular individual, along with a stream of others who messaged Saldaña via Facebook, encouraged him to experience the transit system from a firsthand perspective.
“If this were a different issue that had a middle class or upper middle class constituency, there’s no way we would have stood for this mediocracy with our public transit system,” he said. “An hour and 50 minutes to get somewhere that should only take 10 or 15 minutes … that’s something that needs to be fixed.”
Saldaña’s days are packed. Along with his City Council duties, he’s also the chief engagement officer for KIPP San Antonio public charter schools. He said taking the bus is “not impossible, but it’s really inconvenient.”
Creating a faster, better connected, and more frequent bus line is a feature that all “big cities that consider themselves progressive, smart and efficient and looking forward really need to figure out,” he said.
For Saldaña, a better public transportation system is for one “the right thing to do because there are folks who have no choice and we need to do better for them,” and for two “the smart thing to do.”
He said giving people more transit options will reduce traffic on the major roads and highways while attracting not only working poor people, but people of all socio-economic status. More high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, he said, could be another way for the city to cut back on congestion.
Saldaña said VIA is on the right track with its “Vision 2040” plan, but he would like to see the plan completed at an earlier date. He said VIA’s primary issue is a lack of funding.
“I would propose there are (financial) opportunities at the city, the county and federal level to help them make that not a 2040 plan, but a 2030 or 2025 plan to get there faster,” he said.
VIA’s “Vision 2040” plan is a comprehensive transportation guide that accounts for the city’s growth during the next 25 years to develop a synchronized system of routes.
Saldaña said more Primo routes, or rapid transit routes, would benefit current bus riders. As of now, VIA has only one Primo route that travels along Fredericksburg Road and Medical Drive connecting the main University of Texas at San Antonio campus to the South Texas Medical Center and downtown San Antonio.
“I’m hoping to be a champion for reform and public transit, but I wanted to be able to speak from first-hand experience and not speak from a glossy report that says ‘this is how you do it,’” he said. “I wanted to put myself in those shoes. I think this will lead me proposing some recommendations to VIA.”
*Featured/top image: Councilmember Rey Saldaña checks his phone to locate his current route. Photo by Scott Ball.