Support from the Biden administration and an influx of cash from federal COVID-19 relief is bumping up the timeline for San Antonio’s plan to offer rapid bus services from downtown to the San Antonio Airport, according to VIA Metropolitan Transit President and CEO Jeff Arndt.

Speaking to business and city leaders at the San Antonio’s State of Transit at the Witte Museum on Friday, Arndt said construction on the $320 million North-South portion of the Advanced Rapid Transit plan is now likely begin in 2025 and be completed in 2027. That’s five years sooner than VIA had projected it would take to complete the project without matching federal funding, which it leveraged COVID-19 relief funding to pursue.

The North-South project is expected to receive $158 million from President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget, thanks in part to the city’s ability to demonstrate a plan for matching funds. It did so, Arndt said, by using federal pandemic relief money to fund day-to-day operations while diverting some of VIA’s normal funding into a reserve.

“What really changed was the fact that we got COVID relief funds from the federal government,” Arndt told reporters after the event. “We were able to use those to pay for operating expenses during COVID … as a result of that, we were able to also preserve some of the sales tax that we would have spent, that this replaced.”

VIA currently receives a half-cent of local sales tax revenue. Voters in 2020 approved using an additional one-eighth of a cent of sales tax revenue beginning in 2026 as additional funding for VIA.

Arndt said the VIA board was able to put roughly $200 million into a reserve that allowed it to pursue matching federal funds. San Antonio had not received a Department of Transportation grant in over a decade.

“We were able to go to the federal government now and say, ‘Hey, we have the funding. We have the local match,'” said Arndt. “We are implementing VIA Link services several years earlier than we could have because we couldn’t really afford to do any more [on our own] until 2026.”

The North-South line would begin at the San Antonio International Airport and travel in dedicated lanes along San Pedro through downtown, extending past the Blue Star Arts Complex in Southtown. The zero-emission rapid transit buses are supposed to expedite airport transportation by operating in their own designated lanes, using traffic signal prioritization and an off-board payment system.

The project is currently undergoing environmental reviews before construction can begin, said Arndt.

The project’s East-West segment would stretch from General McMullen Drive on the West Side to near the AT&T Center along parts of Houston and Commerce streets.

It hasn’t received the same support because VIA has yet to lock down matching local funds. But, Arndt said, it has drawn interest from the Federal Transit Administration, which has been an enthusiastic partner for San Antonio’s rapid transit ideas.

Arndt said he met with FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez in Austin to discuss the project, and again in Washington, D.C., as part of the annual SA to DC trip made by business and government leaders. High-ranking FTA officials toured San Antonio to view the ART project recently and encouraged VIA to pursue more federal funding.

“We drove them along the corridor, and they looked around and said, ‘This is exactly the kind of area where we want to make transit investments,'” said Arndt.

The Federal Transit Administration did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Friday afternoon.

VIA is exploring several options to provide the local funding, but Arndt declined to provide details. Arndt said San Antonio has already maxed out the sales tax it used to pay for the North-West portion of the project.

City officials are trying to work quickly before the 2024 presidential election.

“You could have a change of administration that might not be as supportive of our kinds of projects as the current,” said Arndt.

Without any additional funding, Ardnt said VIA’s financial plan indicates the East-West line would not open until 2055.

Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.