VIA buses lined in parking spaces at the refueling center.
VIA Metropolitan Transit is expanding its fleet of buses powered by compressed natural gas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

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Average weekday ridership is up nearly 5 percent on 11 routes that VIA Metropolitan Transit have improved so far in 2018, thanks to faster connections and reduced wait times.

VIA’s deputy chief executive officer, Keith Hom, briefed the City Council on Wednesday about the transit agency’s progress supported by additional City funds. VIA is now planning to improve other routes and looking to partner with the private sector to upgrade service for riders in Northeast San Antonio.

The Council last fall approved an initial $4.3 million investment into VIA as part of the City’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget. Local officials have spent years discussing how best to increase eligible public funding to VIA to help boost frequency of bus arrivals and departures.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Council members said they were glad to see the uptick in ridership along the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and New Braunfels Avenue corridors, and on nine routes mainly on the West and Northwest sides of town.

VIA launched the first of a three-phase plan to improve service citywide in January. Hom said total ridership on the 11 enhanced routes was down 8 percent between October and December 2017. The overall percentage of riders using those routes went up 4.5 percent January through March.

“I am very proud of the effort by VIA and the City of pulling this off together,” Nirenberg said.

He said that he and Council members had firmly believed that, with financial support, VIA could spur more people to use the bus through reduced wait times and faster connections.

The nine routes were upgraded to operate every 15-30 minutes, after previously running every 60 minutes. Two routes along the New Braunfels and MLK corridors now operate every 12 minutes during the same time period.

The first phase of service improvements have affected about 10,700 daily passengers on those routes.

“After three to four months, I think those are encouraging results,” Hom said.

This month, VIA is implementing Phase 2 – average 12-minute service improvements to the San Pedro/West Commerce/East Houston corridor. Next January, VIA will start to apply service improvements to the South Flores/Pleasanton and Culebra/Bandera corridors.

Hom credited VIA’s months-long, multimedia community outreach campaign for much of the successful initial phase of service improvements.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), a longtime proponent of expanded public investment in VIA, said VIA and the City both spent more than a year studying the investment and service improvement issue.

Saldaña said the routes that VIA is improving were chosen because of their overall high traffic volume.

“The question that residents had when they were riding [these routes] was, what can we do to fix the problem I have when I transfer one route, miss [a bus] by a few minutes and I know the next one isn’t coming for 40 minutes and that throws off my entire schedule?” he said.

VIA is also about to receive proposals from companies and other organizations interested in contracting with the transit agency to provide on-demand transportation in a designated area.

That area, or pilot program zone, would be bordered roughly by Loop 1604, Interstate 35, and Bulverde Road inside 1604.

Hom said the three fixed routes in this area are among the least productive routes in all of VIA’s system. About 63,000 people livein the pilot zone and about 13,000 people work there, yet those routes average a total of just 700 passengers daily.

The goal, Hom said, would be to help provide those riders and potential VIA customers with better connectivity to the rest of  its network. But VIA wants to ensure that on-demand service is cost-effective, safe, and reliable, Hom said.

“We want to see if there’s a better way to provide better service in areas that traditionally have had low ridership and low development density,” Hom said.

VIA’s request for proposals was open to traditional taxi companies, transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Lyft and Uber, and other private transportation service providers. VIA’s board of trustees expects to award a contract late this summer, finalize a service plan in October, and roll out the service in January 2019 alongside a marketing campaign.

Hom said whatever the on-demand service looks like, VIA will require that it be accessible to disabled and elderly passengers.

If the pilot program is successful in Northeast San Antonio, VIA could look at expanding it to other areas, such as Alamo Ranch, Hom said. The contract would be good for one year with four one-year options.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he looks forward to seeing the on-demand service in action. He added that many of his constituents often complain about seeing empty seats in VIA buses.

“I’m behind this, and I’m excited about what the real results are going to be,” he said.

With mobility being the focal point at Wednesday’s meeting, the Council was also briefed on the state of autonomous vehicle technology.

Art Reinhardt, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department, said the City is publishing a request for information to the private and public sectors.

The non-binding request has no timeline for goals or projects, Reinhardt said. The objective is to provide the City with ideas on how best it could address and accommodate developing technologies as they relate to autonomous vehicles.

The focus would be on surface vehicles, but could include aerial unmanned vehicles, such as delivery drones, Reinhardt said.

Reinhardt briefed the Council on the levels of potential benefits of autonomous vehicles – reducing driver error and cutting traffic congestion and emissions – and potential concerns – uncertain regulations, cost and time associated with adopting such technology, and whether more autonomous vehicles would add to sprawl and congestion.

Texas is one of 10 U.S. regions selected by the federal government to be an official providing ground for autonomous vehicle technologies. Southwest Research Institute is such a local facility that is testing self-operating vehicles.

Reinhardt described potential pilot program opportunities, such as testing shuttles for City employees, integration into the City’s vehicle fleet, or transporting personnel around local military bases.

“Mobility in the future is going to be more about service,” Reinhardt said.

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz

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