Most people welcome a change if it makes their lives better. The very same change for others, however, can mean a significant disruption in their daily lives. Both opinions have been voiced as San Antonio public transportation enters a period of change.
On Saturday, Dec. 15, VIA Metropolitan Transit, introduced its bus rapid transit service (BRT). The initial route, identified as VIA Primo 100, hopes to connect downtown San Antonio with the South Texas Medical Center and UTSA. The new service officially started the following Monday. VIA also showed off the new Medical Center Transit Center at the corner of Babcock and Medical Drive, which will serve as a hub not only for the VIA Primo, but for a number of other routes and a new circulatory route in the Medical Center area. A second station, the Westside Multimodal Transit Center, is planned for the Cattleman Square Historic District.
Getting from downtown San Antonio to the Medical Center area or out to UTSA will be faster, VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt says, due to the limited number of stops (there are only eight) and each Primo bus is also equipped with the technology to change traffic lights in order to maintain its schedule arrival time at each Primo stop. Between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday thru Friday, it’s scheduled to arrive at a Primo stop every ten minutes – every fifteen minutes on the weekends.
Arndt said the Primo will provide fast, frequent and friendly service and is the first of other planned corridors. He says VIA is currently working on a transit center in the Brooks City Base area to support an express to downtown San Antonio. VIA planners are also looking into existing bus routes which could become BRT corridors.
The new Primo route is a combination of two routes that primarily serviced the Fredericksburg Road corridor – routes 91 and 92 from downtown San Antonio to the Medical Center area – and will continue to the Loop 1604 campus of UTSA on weekdays. In the downtown area, Primo 100 will follow the “Yellow” route of the streetcar, or trolley, system.
The 16 Primo buses have a higher passenger capacity and are sixty feet long, as opposed to the standard 40-foot VIA uses. Articulated, accordion-like centers make for tighter turns. The buses are powered by compressed natural gas, offer a free wireless internet connection and have space for three bicycles inside.
“San Antonio is moving into the 21st century,” said VIA Board Chairman Henry Munoz.
Several city and community leaders attended the ceremony, welcoming the new BRT service.
“Great American cities have a first class multimodal transit system and we are finally after way to long, way to long moving (fast) in that direction, ” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
Mayor Julian Castro called the start of bus rapid transit a “fantastic addition to San Antonio and Bexar County … ensuring people and goods to move more quickly across the metropolitan area.”
The public was able to ride the new buses and route free on Saturday and Sunday prior to its official start on Monday. The vehicles themselves received overwhelmingly positive reviews over the weekend, but after all they were new, clean buses with soft, upholstered seats with that “new car smell.”
So the buses are nice on the inside and shiny on the outside, but the service Primo provides means an adjustment for daily commuters and casual riders. Initially, there are members of the public that see both positive and negative adjustments.
When Alma Avila, who lives in the Walnut Hill apartments across the street from the new Medical Center Transit Center, saw signs that VIA would be building a transit center across the street from her home she thought it was great. When she moved into the Walnut Hill apartments fifteen months ago, she said there was only one bus route near her home.
“Now (the transit center) will give me more access to different routes. It’ll be faster for me to move around, either to go downtown or North Star Mall or Crossroads (Wonderland of the Americas),” Avila said.
San Antonio resident Terry Grant, however, sees the new route changes differently.
“It sucks”, she said.
Grant moved from Houston about ten years ago and has been riding the 92 bus to the Medical Center on VIA’s Fredericksburg Road route – one route absorbed by Primo. She’d easily catch the bus at Five Points, where Fredericksburg Road, N. Flores Street and Cypress Street converge. Now, she said, she will need to catch two buses to get to the nearest Primo stop or walk approximately one mile north on Fredericksburg Road, not a pedestrian-friendly road, to the Primo station at Huisache Avenue and Fredericksburg Road. Either way, she says, it’s an inconvenience.
For VIA bus riders going from downtown San Antonio to the Medical Center or even as far as UTSA, the new service is an improvement. Those who used the routes and stops eliminated to make way for the Primo will have to adjust.
“Great American cities have a first class multimodal transit system,” Wolff said.
Perhaps it’s a bit premature to say that this new service is moving San Antonio in the direction of being a “great American city.”
“Multimodal” is the key word. San Antonio does not yet have more than one mode of public transportation, the new service after all is called the BRT and the “B” stands for bus.
Ernie Villarreal most recently worked as news program producer at Texas Public Radio. Over about 24 years at TPR, he earned a number of awards from Texas Associated Press, Women in Communications, and the Texas Public Health Association. He’s contributed work to a number of public radio programs including NPR, MarketPlace, LatinoUSA and On the Media. Currently, he works as a freelancer in San Antonio.