Councilman Rey Saldaña checks his phone trying to locate the route he is currently on. Photo by Scott Ball.
In 2015 Councilman Rey Saldaña used the bus service to make all of his appointments in meetings in an effort to learn the system from a passengers perspective. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Jeffrey Arndt, president and CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit, uses a “peanut butter sandwich” metaphor when comparing VIA’s funding to what transit agencies get in other major Texas cities.

“San Antonio and Houston have the same size bread, but we have a quarter the amount of peanut butter and that, like service, gets spread thin,” Arndt recently told the Rivard Report.

San Antonio and Houston’s transit agencies cover roughly the same size of service areas — more than 1,200 miles. But Houston’s METRO operates nearly 2,200 vehicles and tallies more than 69 million in “revenue miles,” that is the amount of service on the streets. VIA’s current 739-vehicle fleet tallies 33 million revenue miles.

VIA gets a half cent of the local sales tax from its original Metropolitan Transit Authority tax, and a 1/8-cent allocation through the Advanced Transportation District (ATD). That added up to $166.6 million total in sales tax revenue for VIA in fiscal year 2015.

Houston’s METRO gets a full cent from its main sales tax, with a quarter of that going to local general mobility projects. Still, METRO collected $542 million in FY 2015.

An ad hoc committee has been meeting for the past six months to look at VIA’s funding model, determining whether more sales tax revenue claimed through the ATD can be reallocated to VIA to boost fleet operations. This could mean more buses on busier routes and corridors, helping to cut down on wait times and improve frequency.

So far, the ATD Committee has been unable to come to a consensus, but will meet again later this month to make a recommendation to the City Council. Arndt has unveiled a proposed service plan that would use at least $10 million of reallocated district revenue.

(Read more: Should the City Give VIA a Bigger Slice of the Sales Tax?)

If $10 million were reallocated from the City's ATD funds, VIA Metropolitan Transit officials say it could enhance frequencies on 10 routes, seen here in blue. Image courtesy of VIA.
If $10 million were reallocated from the City’s ATD funds, VIA Metropolitan Transit officials say it could enhance frequencies on 10 routes, seen here in blue. Image courtesy of VIA.

Service improvements would be phased in, starting in fiscal year 2018, and include at least 24 new buses. The ATD Committee has mulled the idea of raising VIA’s district revenue to as much as $15 million.

But City staff has recommended against any reallocation from the City’s ATD revenue share, saying it could force the City to look at cutting back on infrastructure needs like sidewalks, which do benefit from some ATD funding.

Therein lies the rub. Committee members and City leaders agree that VIA could use help, perhaps even from the State Legislature, with increased funding for operations.

But committee members and VIA officials have acknowledged two challenges: to create an awareness of how VIA comes up short in funding compared with its counterparts in other major Texas cities, and balancing VIA’s needs with the City’s basic needs.

This, as Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) points out, is especially crucial with San Antonio’s mission to become a multimodal city, with more transit options to move a population that’s poised to add 1 million people by 2040.

Saldaña sees VIA as a major partner in a multimodal San Antonio, envisioned by the SA2020 and SA Tomorrow planning initiatives.

Those long-range plans suggest that light rail, high occupancy vehicle lanes, and more Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), such as VIA’s Primo, would provide residents with more efficient transportation options and greater connectivity.

SA Tomorrow’s Multimodal Transportation draft plan contains an April 2015 survey that asked respondents how they would allocate $100 in transportation improvements. Respondents said they would spend $30 on light rail, second only to roads.

An April 2016 survey conducted between VIA and SA Tomorrow showed that 76% of respondents see HOV lanes as an effective option to reduce traffic congestion on expressways.

“We can’t do this without VIA. We have to be full partners in collaboration here,” said Saldana, who sits on the ATD Committee as co-chair.

Arndt and VIA have spent the last week showing what the transit agency could do with $10 million in new money as a starting point as well as how VIA could catch up with counterpart transit agencies money-wise.

“I think some people, including those who may not ride mass transit, now see how bad the funding situation is for our multimodal partner,” Saldaña said.

Houston’s METRO had the highest dedication of sales tax revenue among the four major Texas cities in FY 2015 with $542 million, followed by Dallas Area Rapid Transit with $519 million, and Austin’s Capital Metro with $211 million. These agencies each get a full cent from their respective main sales tax.

A conference attendee walks down the spiraled mound at the main entrance to McGovern Centennial Gardens and fountain in Hermann Park, Houston. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The METRORail, filled almost to capacity, passes by stopped vehicular traffic near The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Red Line runs north-south, connecting educational, recreational, and employment hubs. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

VIA also receives the least amount of federal grant dollars among the four largest Texas cities — $32.2 million in 2015 compared to $88.8 million for Houston/METRO. Population density and other factors go into the formula that dictates how federal money is split up among local mass transit agencies. More federal funds are geared toward fixed guideway systems, where half of a local rail or BRT system has dedicated routes, which Dallas and Houston both have.

VIA’s Primo is not classified as BRT because THOSE buses operate in general traffic, Arndt said.

Dallas and Houston’s each built up significant capital reserves years ago to buy more buses and build more facilities, Arndt said. Houston’s bus fleet numbered 355 in 1980. VIA’s annual sales tax revenues do not allow it to accumulate significant reserves, although it does maintain a $30 million capital reserve, and another $30 million contingency reserve that can be used in the case of spiking fuel costs and other expenses that can’t be anticipated.

“A half cent tax doesn’t buy us the transit system that we need,” he said.

Raising VIA’s MTA sales tax to a full cent would give the agency a $140 million infusion. However, the City would have to figure how to accommodate that into a state-capped 8.25% total sales tax.

Arndt said the Legislature has worked hard at identifying money for transportation. These efforts have resulted in voter-approved funding for road improvement projects.

“Those propositions weren’t generated overnight. It took several years to get (state lawmakers) to understand mobility issues,” Arndt said.

The Legislature could benefit from discussing ways to help large cities improve their mass transit systems, said ATD Committee member Vic Boyer during a recent meeting.

Boyer and other committee members have talked of lobbying local legislators, but they know it will take a long, coordinated campaign by the major Texas cities and counties to convince state lawmakers to consider funding remedies such as raising the cap on total local sales taxes or increasing vehicle registration fees.

“It wouldn’t be overnight. It may take longer,” Arndt said.

So if the state doesn’t offer a remedy anytime soon, what else can VIA do to improve operations? Saldaña said one way to answer that question is for VIA to provide short- and long-term solutions.

Saldaña has grown more comfortable with what route and corridor improvements that VIA says it can carry out with a $10 million ATD revenue reallocation.

In addition to that proposed service plan, Arndt said, VIA is already implementing a number of improvements, including the addition of Park & Ride stations in Alamo Ranch, near the Rolling Oaks Mall, and at The Rim/La Cantera. It’s working to expand Primo service to the Southside and plans to install new bus shelters at nearly 1,000 locations across its service area by November.

The new VIVA route buses will hit the streets on Monday, June 6. Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.
The new VIVA route buses will hit the streets on Monday, June 6. Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

VIA will launch on three distinct routes – VIVA Missions, VIVA Culture, and VIVA Centro — on Minday to make it more convenient for locals and visitors to reach historic sites, arts and culture centers, museums, restaurant districts, and entertainment hubs.

(Read More: New ‘VIVA’ Bus Routes to Connect Missions, Urban Core)

Arndt said he and other VIA leaders want to make it clear to the community that the agency is proceeding with these improvements even as the funding debate continues.

“Its not that we’re stuck,” he said.

VIA has plenty of work to improve San Antonio’s transportation overall, according to a 2014 progress report by SA2020.

“While there’s progress in public transit use and the development of complete streets, we have seen little to no change in commute times and vehicle miles traveled,” the draft report’s transportation section states. “Also, our progress on annual boardings does not put us on track to meet our ambitious 2020 target.”

Arndt said these recent discussions give local leaders and the public a better look at how VIA’s funding impacts bus service, and how VIA can play into San Antonio’s bigger picture for mass transit.

“I’m really happy people at the City and private citizens are having this conversation. It’s a starting point,” Arndt said. “As Councilman Saldaña said, we won’t have Superman coming to help us.”

Saldaña recalled how he spent a month riding the bus in 2015, experiencing firsthand the various challenges riders face everyday, including traffic congestion and long wait times for rides.

It’s important for VIA to ensure “their basic services are right,” he said, in the short term while more long-range mass transit options are properly planned out.

“(VIA) clearly spelled things out,” Saldaña said of VIA’s recent presentations about funding and short-range service solutions. He also praised a video produced by VIA that featured interviews with riders that enjoyed improved services. The video was shown recently to ATD Committee members.

“(VIA) made things real to us, with the voices and faces of people who ride the bus everyday,” Saldaña said.

Community members should adopt a long-term vision to keep big ideas, such as light rail, in people’s minds, he said, adding that lessons can be learned from the dissolution of the streetcar proposal in 2014.

“I’m not saying we’re going to have a plan for light rail next year, but I have memories about going through the streetcar issue,” he said. “For now, we should be investing in a more efficient bus system.”

Top image: Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4) checks his phone to locate his current route while riding a VIA bus in June 2015.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Rivard: The Time to Invest in Mass Transit is Now

Should the City Give VIA a Bigger Slice of the Sales Tax?

VIA looks to City for More Funding 

Via Board approves Downtown Route Changes for June

New ‘VIVA’ Bus Routes to Connect Missions, Urban Core 

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.