After more than a year of cutting back service and incurring pandemic-related costs, VIA Metropolitan Transit upped its budget for fiscal year 2022. Fares will not increase.

The VIA board of trustees unanimously approved a $259.4 million operating budget for fiscal year 2022 at a Tuesday meeting. The budget is $10 million more than the fiscal year 2020 budget, the last one adopted before the coronavirus pandemic began. Last year, VIA shrank its budget to accommodate for a projected decrease in sales tax.

Staff took into account a 4% increase in sales tax revenue when drafting the 2022 budget, said Steve Lange, chief financial officer and vice president of fiscal management. VIA also received $10 million from the City of San Antonio, as usual.

The 2022 budget includes higher pay for employees, including a 3.5% increase for salaried workers that took effect Friday. VIA also ended its hiring freeze under the new budget, Lange said.

The budget also allows the transit agency to improve frequency and service hours, reassess how much bus service should be deployed for customer demand, and continue to follow COVID-19 protocols, Lange said. VIA also is focusing on ridership recovery and growth; its ridership numbers took a hit when the pandemic began and have stayed lower than pre-pandemic levels.

“Overall, we’re looking at [fiscal year 2022] to really focus on the customer experience, and ensuring long-term and short-term financial stability,” Lange told board members on Tuesday.

The VIA board also approved a $130.5 million capital budget for fiscal year 2022 and a five-year $586.8 million capital spending plan. The five-year plan includes finishing the new operations center for VIATrans, the agency’s paratransit service, and redeveloping the Scobey Complex.

There is also funding to add more zones for mobility-on-demand, a program known as VIA Link. VIA began testing that program in 2019 and announced a third VIA Link zone in Northwest San Antonio on Friday. That VIA Link zone began operations on Saturday, serving UTSA Main Campus, Northwest Vista College, and the area around it. VIA plans to open at least eight more VIA Link zones.

“This budget helps position VIA programs and services as key to social and economic recovery for our community, after a long year of challenges,” President and CEO Jeff Arndt said in a statement. “And it supports the voter-approved Keep SA Moving plan, ensuring VIA riders can stay connected to opportunities for work, school, health and family with improved experiences for our customers.”

VIA board members also unanimously voted Tuesday to allocate $210,000 to purchase H-E-B gift cards as incentives for employees to get the coronavirus vaccine. Employees who provide proof of full vaccination will get a $100 gift card.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.