VIA Metropolitan Transit said goodbye to one board chair and elected another on Tuesday afternoon.
Before VIA’s regular meeting, outgoing board chair Rey Saldaña joined a few dozen VIA board members and staffers for a reception in his honor. He addressed his colleagues as they gathered around tables adorned with star-shaped confetti and “Good Luck Rey!” signs featuring VIA buses.
Saldaña is moving to Washington, D.C. to serve as the president and CEO of the national nonprofit Communities in Schools. He announced his departure earlier in February. But he didn’t consider the job seriously at first, he said.
“Even as the pitch [for Communities in Schools] was being made, I was saying in my head, ‘I’m going to figure out how to politely say no to the offer because I’m really loving what’s going on here,’” he said. “Plus, my wife is not going to want us to shift our entire life and turn it upside down and take myself, her, and our 1-year-old up to D.C.”
But she surprised him by encouraging him to take the job, he said. If this was a good opportunity, they should try it out, she reasoned.
“She said, ‘Look, San Antonio is always going to be home, we’re going to be back here some point; I can feel it,’” he said.
VIA board members voted unanimously to replace Saldaña with former chair Hope Andrade, who Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff both endorsed.
“I left six months ago with heartfelt pride for the work we had done together and the amazing opportunity I’ve had to work with the best staff that [VIA president and CEO Jeff Arndt] leads,” Andrade said. “I’m back again, full of pride, to serve as your chair, to work alongside you, to continue doing the great things that you, Mr. Chair, continued after I left.”
Andrade, who served as VIA chair for more than five years, also serves as one of the tri-chairs of ConnectSA. Her term with VIA will end on Nov. 30, after the City of San Antonio puts the reallocation of a one-eighth-cent sales tax to bolster transit frequency to a vote.
A recent Bexar Facts/KSAT/Rivard Report poll showed that Bexar County voters generally approve of supporting public transit, though they prioritize aquifer protection and pre-K. A poll conducted last September by the NRDC Action Fund, which is affiliated with the Natural Resource Defense Council, found that a majority of voters would support reallocating sales tax funding to bolster public transit.
Saldaña said he was worried about how his move would affect the City and the transit agency’s efforts to expand its transit offerings, especially with the upcoming vote in November.
“We’re in this position where everybody’s talking about VIA, and there are great articles coming out, there’s momentum building – what’s this going to do to sort of suck the air out?” Saldaña said. “I was really concerned about that. But Jeff didn’t miss a beat, saying, ‘Look. We’ve got a great team who knows the song and they’re singing and we’re all singing in harmony.”
Each board member thanked Saldaña for his service as board chair, his role as a champion for public transit while he served on City Council, and for using public transportation on a regular basis.
“I feel all of us have learned so much from Rey,” board member Marina Gavito said. “Not only how you championed transportation, but the example you set by taking VIA once a week. … You’re opening the door for so many of us, not just VIA board and staff, but the city to participate and take VIA and see the beauty of it.”
While board members all told Saldaña he would be welcomed back to San Antonio with open arms, VIA Board Vice Chair Bob Comeaux reminded him to return for the ConnectSA vote.
“We hope you’re here for the victory party,” he said.
Saldaña thanked his colleagues for their words and for their work on the shared goal of connecting San Antonio.
“It’s really been a moment in time I’m going to treasure because there was such clarity and purpose,” he said.
“I’m proud to have lived in this moment with you all, but I am feeling a little regret I don’t get to be part of the moment just as it’s getting good. … I kick myself that I won’t be a part of it, but we have strong leaders who will keep it going.”
Arndt assured Saldaña not to worry, as he had already sketched out Saldaña’s future life plan.
“You’ll be in D.C. through 2024, you’ll return to San Antonio, and be the chair of VIA again,” Arndt said. “You have 7.5 years open [out of an eight-year term limit]. Come back and help us build it.”