Councilman Rey Saldaña removes his bicycle from the front rack of a VIA bus. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Rey Saldaña removes his bicycle from the front rack of a VIA bus.

Elected officials and transit authorities are trying to figure out how to prioritize funding between citywide infrastructure needs and improving VIA Metropolitan Transit’s current and future operations.

The latter would go a long way toward San Antonio’s goal of becoming a more multi-modal city, some officials believe.

On Thursday the City’s Advanced Transportation District (ATD) Ad Hoc Committee asked City staff to provide more details on a scenario in which nearly $10 million in district revenue would be reallocated to VIA, boosting the transit agency’s ATD revenue take.

The ATD, approved by voters in 2004, has produced nearly $500 million for transportation-related improvements, traffic safety elements, and road expansion and maintenance since the sales tax collection began for the district.

VIA receives half of the revenue, while the rest is split between the City and the Texas Department of Transportation. VIA is expected to get about $31 million in district revenue this year.

The transit agency receives more revenue from a half-cent Metropolitan Transit Authority tax that helped to launch VIA’s initial operations in 1977.

Reallocating the City’s annual share of ATD revenue, which is often used for sidewalks, could help VIA further expand its Primo service and enhance the frequency of regular service.

City Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4), who co-chairs the committee, said he hopes the committee could examine the details under this scenario when it meets again June 1.

“We’re in a position to prove where our priorities lie, where our values lie,” Saldaña added.

The committee then would make a recommendation for the full Council, which would consider the funding shift the following week. This will give Council a more complete picture of money available as it prepares its fiscal year 2017 budget.

City staff and the committee will also look into another scenario: reallocating $3 million in debt service from when the City used ATD money to speed up installation of its Traffic Signal System Modernization project. These debt service payments are scheduled to end in FY 2017.

Saldaña was inspired to approach the issue of how to better fund VIA after he spent one day last June traveling around town entirely on bus. He saw firsthand how infrequent, slow service resulted in more time aboard the bus.

At the committee meeting, Saldaña acknowledge reallocating money budgeted for sidewalks is not an easy consideration given that San Antonio has more than 2,100 miles in sidewalk “gaps” in need of filling, or $1 billion worth of work.

A 2017 bond issue can only do so much for sidewalks and other basic infrastructure needs.

“Sidewalks are the hardest thing to argue against because of the many needs out there,” Saldaña said. “I don’t want the discussion on sidewalks to fall on deaf ears. I believe sidewalks are incredibly vital.”

But improving overall transportation citywide is another high priority for officials and residents in the SA2020 and SA Tomorrow plans, which calls for increasing mass transit use and decreasing commute times.

Jeffrey Arndt, president and CEO of VIA, said his agency would use any additional funds for operations, although committee member Vic Boyer noted in a previous committee meeting that ATD funds cannot be used strictly for operations.

Arndt used a ballpark dollar figure, in another scenario, to give an example of how VIA could benefit from more overall funding.

“If I looked at, say, $10 million a year, that would allow us to fund one, maybe two, (Bus Rapid Transit routes),” Arndt added. VIA’s Primo is a BRT, where high-capacity buses – coupled with a an enhanced fare collection system and controlled traffic signals – move riders more efficiently.

The funds also could used by VIA to improve system-wide bus frequency from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 30 minutes or less for 80% of all routes. Many of the current routes operate on an hourly basis, making them unappealing to many discretionary riders. Any additional funding could be used to help improve specific route corridors, too.

The existing Primo service has frequent 10-minute peak service between the South Texas Medical Center and downtown, with extensions to the University of Texas at San Antonio and Leon Valley.

Committee member and former City Manager Alex Briseño said the City and VIA should look at the debt service scenario, suggesting there could be ways to possibly leverage that money with matching funds or some other funding source.

Assistant City Manager Peter Zanoni said ATD funding for sidewalks has typically been prioritized for sidewalks around schools.

But the City has also invested in sidewalks that connect neighborhoods to the linear creekway system and should continue to do so, said Councilman Ray Lopez (D6), committee co-chair.

Boyer added that disabled individuals may tend to rely on traditional street-level sidewalks instead of linear creekway sidewalks, if the latter is even available to them.

Saldaña agreed with the notion that improving service frequency can help riders to reduce the amount riders spend on a bus in a day, or riders who may miss a transfer ride.

“But how does that impact high occupancy corridors?,” Saldana asked rhetorically.

One way or another, Lopez said, VIA needs financial help in improving service for current riders and making itself a more attractive, viable option for riders in the future.

“We’ve got to embrace a new way of transportation, which is multi-modal. We have no choice,” he added.

Committee member Darryl Byrd, founder of ULTRAte Consulting and former SA2020 CEO, suggested that VIA demonstrate how any future transit improvements will benefit the entire community.

The City should keep sidewalks on the front burner, Byrd said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that $5.1. million in City funds would be considered for reallocation to VIA. The correct figure is $10 million.

Top image: Councilman Rey Saldaña removes his bicycle from the front rack of a VIA bus.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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