Outgoing Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) accepts the role as Via Metropolitan Transit Board chair.
VIA Chairman Rey Saldaña believes that far more San Antonians would be bus riders if the system were adequately funded and commuters were incentivized to leave their vehicles at home. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

VIA Metropolitan Transit trustees unanimously voted to support the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan at their Tuesday meeting.

“We are in service of a larger mission that is obviously at the top of minds for a lot of folks who want to feel we are playing and doing our part, from things that start as small as recycling to really transforming the way we consider energy use and, in our case, the transit agency that might play a part in meeting the goals of the adaptation plan,” VIA Board Chair Rey Saldaña told the board on Tuesday.

Trustee Amanda Merck commended her fellow VIA board members for supporting the climate plan put forth by the City of San Antonio.

“Not only is transit huge for reaching some of the climate mitigation strategies and climate goals, but … unlike some of the other mitigation strategies, transit can also move the needle on numerous other, simultaneous goals at the same time – sustainability, social equality, and public health goals,” she said.

Trustees also approved a $249 million operating budget for fiscal year 2020 on Tuesday. The adopted budget stayed largely the same as its original proposed version, said Steve Lange, vice president of fiscal management. The total cost did not change, but staff did shuffle around funding for certain projects.

“We have the vast majority of these expenses going directly to things associated with putting service on the street – operations, labor, purchased transportation, fuel and utilities, materials and supplies primarily to maintain our buses, and some other spending going toward admin support and other categories,” Lange said. 

He noted that VIA’s move from buses that use diesel to buses that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) has saved the company millions of dollars. In 2008, VIA spent $24.4 million on fuel. A decade later, that number shrank to $7.3 million. The 2020 budget allocates $5.7 million for fuel. 

“We’re seeing a continuation of cost savings in other areas, but fuel is the biggest,” Lange said.

The $75.8 million capital spending budget, which was also approved Tuesday, is mostly dedicated to buying new vehicles. VIA plans to buy 30 CNG buses, 62 paratransit vehicles, and 8 electric buses. 

The 2020 budget includes $10 million from the City of San Antonio, the same amount the City gave to VIA last year. That funding is crucial to providing the best service possible to riders, Saldaña said.

“We’d have to make more folks wait longer at bus stops if we took out that $10 million,” he said. “[We’re] making sure we’re building the kind of system that’s worth what the folks deserve, [the ones] who are riding it every single day because they depend on it, but also building out a system for riders who will be choice riders.”

VIA Board Secretary and trustee Ezra Johnson said he was delighted to see the budget incorporate an expanded fare assistance program and ways to fund and plan for VIA’s future.

“It has certainly been said to me if you want to know what an organization believes, you want to know where it’s putting its money,” he said. “I see us increasing our service hours, upgrading our fleet, increasing pay for employees without increasing employees share of health cost.” 

The budget also included a plan to roll out improvements to VIA’s goMobile app in 2020 and, later this fall, start using the reloadable goCard. VIA discussed the goCard as part of its fiscal year 2019 budget

Trustees also approved changing its Viva Centro 301 route to go west on Travis Street instead of Houston Street while Houston Street undergoes major construction, starting in October.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.