Last January, average daily ridership on the routes improved by City funding was about 15,000 passengers per day. Now, it’s 20,000. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

VIA Metropolitan Transit has seen increased ridership after the City allocated $14.3 million to its operation costs, VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt told City Council on Wednesday.

VIA received $4.3 million from the City budget for fiscal year 2018 and $10 million in 2019.

VIA’s main improvement goal is to increase frequency on its routes, Arndt said. With help from the City’s money, VIA started a three-phase plan to do so last January. Wait times between 10 and 12 minutes are considered the “sweet spot,” where riders no longer have to refer to a schedule to hop on a bus, Arndt explained.

In Phase 1, VIA decreased wait times along the MLK corridor and New Braunfels Avenue corridor to 12 minutes, and on seven other routes to 30 minutes. In Phase 2, VIA worked on getting wait times down to the “sweet spot” in two more corridors. VIA is now in Phase 3 and trying to increase frequency on the South Flores/Pleasanton corridor and Culebra/Bandera corridor so customers wait 12 minutes or less before the next bus comes along.

With that increased frequency comes higher ridership numbers, Arndt said. Last January, average daily ridership on the improved routes was about 15,000 passengers per day. Now, it’s 20,000.

“The only thing we did was invest those dollars in more frequent service,” Arndt said. “VIA’s funding bought the buses. The city’s funding pays for operation. [Bus operators’] wages are paid through $10 million investment. We did not expand the span of service. We took what was out there and increased frequency.”

VIA’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is $238.9 million. Without the extra money from the City, Arndt said there would likely only be two high-frequency routes instead of the dozens VIA offers today. The routes from VIA’s new high-frequency routes made up a significant portion of its increased ridership, he added.

“If you look at December, we know that Phase 1 routes’ [ridership] were up 31 percent and Phase 2 routes were up 41 percent,” he said. “The remainder of system was up 2.2 percent.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said it was gratifying to see an investment pay off.

“[Seeing increased ridership] hopefully will give the public confidence that every bit of investment that we’re making to improve ridership, experience, frequency, and reliability of VIA is dollars well spent,” he said. “And it’s not just impacting riders utilizing those routes, but it’s also helping with traffic relief and showing transportation does create opportunities for people, whether they’re on their way to work, school, or back home to do homework with kids.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who is opposing Nirenberg in the May 4 municipal election, told Arndt that VIA’s increased ridership shows that the organization used City funding wisely and that they should think bigger for VIA’s future. If anything, Brockhouse said, VIA should ask for more money from City Council.

“What is it going to cost to get half of that dang system under 15 minutes? You have to start thinking bigger and getting more cash. … Don’t just come in and ask for the 10 [million dollars],” he said. “Let’s talk about pushing more routes forward and what that looks like to getting the system where it needs to be.”

Arndt and several Council members thanked Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) for spearheading VIA’s funding. Saldaña became an advocate for improving San Antonio’s bus system after depending solely on VIA for his transportation in 2015.

Saldaña, who is serving his fourth and last term, urged current and future Council members to prioritize VIA in budget decisions.

“There might be challenges to whether we should pedal back or go in reverse on this commitment. … But now you see that the $10 million – while it’s not [going to] a city department, it affects city residents in ways you can see and articulate,” he said. “It’ll be up to this Council going forward to protect that investment and even expand it to bring other partners into the fold.”

Plans call for City Council, if it makes no changes, to continue to allocate $10 million to VIA every year in its budget.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.