As San Antonio’s investment in its bus system has increased, ridership numbers fell steadily between 2013 and 2018, a trend that could prove detrimental to local leaders’ efforts to convince San Antonians to approve greater funding for bus transit.

Since 2013, the number of passenger trips taken on VIA Metropolitan Transit vehicles has declined each year, although 2019 numbers are not yet available. The ridership numbers could become an issue as Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and VIA officials work to drum up support for shifting sales tax funding from water quality protection and trailway programs to mass transit.

People boarded VIA vehicles nearly 44 million times in 2013, according to ridership numbers provided by the transit agency. That number dwindled to 34.8 million in 2018.

VIA was not able to provide ridership numbers for all of 2019, as data for December had not yet been finalized. However, the transit agency reported that routes on which VIA increased bus frequency – some from 60-minute wait times to 30-minute wait times – saw a 16.7 percent increase in ridership since some routes were upgraded over the past two years.

VIA president and CEO Jeff Arndt spoke to the Rivard Report last week and explained that the transit agency has to balance its priorities. Though decreasing wait times is its primary goal, VIA also has to make sure it serves all of San Antonio, Arndt said.

“Whenever we talk about our funding … we have to spread our peanut butter real thin,” Arndt said. “That means we don’t have much service. If you think of the bus service, we’re undernourished. And what we did over the last few years is prove if you nourish the system, you get results.”

To fund most of its operations, VIA receives a half-cent sales tax revenue from the City of San Antonio; other major metropolitan mobility agencies in Texas receive the full cent, putting VIA at an automatic disadvantage, Arndt said.

In November, Nirenberg called for a shift of a one-eighth-cent sales tax currently allocated for Edwards Aquifer protection to expand funding for VIA. Wolff also has said that is the only funding mechanism he sees as viable for expanding mass transit in San Antonio, a key component of the comprehensive ConnectSA transportation plan Wolff and Nirenberg have spearheaded.

Former City Councilman and VIA board Chair Rey Saldaña said increased ridership on routes with more buses running shows that riders will respond to better bus service by riding more.

“This is not the time to pull back,” he said. “If you use the data and let that tell the story, we’re showing the kind of numbers that would tell the San Antonio consumer and taxpayer that this is the time to invest and double down because we’re seeing success and it’s not a hypothesis anymore. It’s not a theory, it is real.”

While the transit system’s overall ridership declined, VIA’s operating expenses have climbed each year since 2013, and revenue generated from fares has steadily decreased. In 2013, the agency spent $175 million to operate and in 2018, spending rose to $206 million.

VIA’s existing half-cent sales tax revenue makes up more than 70 percent of its operating funds. Fare revenue provides between 10 percent and 14 percent of VIA’s operating funds each year. The City of San Antonio also has given VIA additional funding for the past three years to bolster its operating budget. VIA received $10 million contributions in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 and $4.3 million in fiscal year 2018 from the City. The City’s funding went toward decreasing wait times on what Arndt calls “partnership routes” that benefit from the additional City funding.

“As you saw, [overall] ridership had been dropping three percent [between 2017 and 2018],” Arndt said. “And we go into these partnership routes, and increase service levels … [and] we saw a response in ridership.”

Arndt told City Council members last March that the City’s $10 million contributions in 2018 and 2019 helped VIA decrease wait times in six corridors between January 2018 and January 2019. In 2018, wait times fell along the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, New Braunfels Avenue, San Pedro Avenue/West Commerce Street, and East Houston Street corridors to 12 minutes. In 2019, the agency targeted the South Flores Street/Pleasanton Road and Culebra Road/Bandera Road corridors for more frequent service.

Monthly ridership data of the routes that were upgraded showed either general upward trends or fairly steady ridership. Line 26, or the Martin Luther King route that connects Centro Plaza to Martin Luther King Park, appeared to experience a dip in ridership.

Overall ridership in October 2019 rose 6 percent over October 2018, while ridership in November 2019 increased by 4 percent compared to November 2018.

Transit agencies across the country have been seeing fewer riders in the past seven years or so as the economy has done well and gas prices have remained low, Saldaña said.

“This is conventional wisdom among transit experts: the economy and state of people who would otherwise choose the bus correlates with spikes and valleys, when people feel they have to choose the bus, or consider another transit option to reduce on cost,” Saldaña said.

As it continues to work on improving its service, VIA is publicizing its 10-year strategic plan that calls for adding more direct routes and frequent service, implementing technology-driven solutions for smarter transit, and using dedicated lanes for advanced rapid transit.

The transit agency is hosting a telephone town hall on Wednesday at 7 p.m. to present the plan, called VIA Reimagined, to community members. This story has been updated to show the bus routes that benefited from additional City funding for higher frequency service.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.