The first route in a planned advanced rapid transit system for San Antonio could be well on its way, with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announcing Wednesday the agency would recommend the project for federal funding. 

What could become San Antonio’s first such system was among seven projects in six states nationwide added to President Joe Biden’s list recommended for funding in 2023. 

If approved, VIA Metropolitan Transit would receive $158 million from the federal government for the project in 2024.

The estimated $320 million project would establish dedicated lanes along San Pedro Avenue for a north-south rapid transit bus corridor between the San Antonio International Airport and downtown. If funded, construction on the 12-mile corridor for a rapid transit system could start in 2025. 

The planned 12-mile route for Advanced Rapid Transit (ART) will take passengers through downtown San Antonio and stretch north to the airport.
The planned 12-mile route for Advanced Rapid Transit (ART) would take passengers through downtown San Antonio and stretch north to the airport. Credit: Courtesy / VIA Metropolitan Transit

VIA entered the concept in the competitive capital investment grants program last summer. Projects that are selected to move to the next level of consideration must be rated medium, medium-high or high for how well it meets the funding criteria. In January, the FTA rated the VIA project as medium-high.

“We still have to complete all the in-between steps that one does with the FTA — environmental clearances, community involvement, engineering,” said VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt. “But this is this indication, if you continue down the path you’re on, you will be funded … subject to congressional appropriation.”

Capital investment grant projects require local matching funds, which Arndt said will come from COVID-19 relief funding and the allocation of a one-eighth-cent share of local sales tax money voters approved for VIA in 2020 and that begins in 2026. 

VIA will also take advantage of a special loan program provided through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, Arndt added, which does not require payback until five years after the project starts operating. The transit route is expected to be ready by 2027.

Though light rail systems have been the focus of local officials in the past, advanced rapid transit systems are much less expensive to build and more flexible to operate than light rail, Arndt said.

The two systems are similar in that there would be bus stations positioned along the route where riders can pay the bus fare before boarding and the buses have exclusive right-of-way through the corridor. 

Advanced rapid transit systems allow buses to communicate with traffic signals — extending the time for a green light or making a red light turn green sooner. In addition, when the bus reaches the end of the transit corridor, it can enter general traffic flow and travel further into other areas. 

A design rendering shows the dedicated lanes and stations that would be in place along San Pedro Avenue.
A design rendering shows the dedicated lanes and stations that would be in place along San Pedro Avenue. Credit: Courtesy / VIA Metropolitan Transit

If funding can be secured, a second east-west transit system that would stretch from General McMullen Drive on the West Side to near the AT&T Center along parts of Houston and Commerce streets is also in VIA’s plans.

“That’s the line we still do not have a local match for but we do have money to begin the planning process,” Arndt said. “We’re going to move the east-west line up to the brink of where we can enter into project development with the FTA the same way we did with the north-south line.” 

Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) said he is looking forward to having advanced rapid transit not just in his district but for San Antonio.

“It’s the same route that Elon Musk’s Boring Company is wanting to take, only it’s going to serve a lot of communities and businesses all along the way,” he said. “It’s going to serve locals, not just tourists that are coming in through the airport.”

VIA has been discussing an advanced rapid transit system since 2018 but both federal and local funding had been an obstacle. Currently, VIA gets less than three-quarters of a cent of the city’s share of sales tax (1 percent) while most transportation agencies in large Texas metropolitan areas dedicate a full cent to mass transit. The passage of Proposition A in November 2020 gives an additional eighth of a cent to VIA in perpetuity beginning in 2026.

The other projects the FTA recommended for funding in 2023 include a light rail system in Los Angeles, rapid transit in Santa Clara Valley, a commuter rail tunnel in New York and New Jersey, heavy rail subway service in New York and rapid transit systems in Memphis and Seattle.

VIA recently held two public meetings to discuss the rapid transit project. Residents can sign up to be notified about future meetings at keepsamoving.com.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.