Eight potential VIA route adjustments, focused mainly in the downtown area, were the subject of a public forum hosted by VIA Metropolitan Transit Thursday night, but the citizens who attended had suggestions and concerns regarding VIA bus services all over the city.
Buses filled to capacity, long waiting times, and underrepresented areas were all issues brought by community members to VIA representatives at the meeting.
"These changes need to be made before I'll discuss any new changes," said Robert Martinez, who said he was tired of overcrowded buses and hour-long wait times.
The branches facing possible adjustments include 7 Sightseer Special; 22 Hays Frequent; 42 Roosevelt; 70 Cesar Chavez; 301 Red Circulator; 305 Blue Circulator; 333 The E; and 614 Hidden Cove/Kel-Lac.
For an interactive map of all VIA bus routes, click here.
Tracy Manning, VIA manager of route planning, gave a presentation detailing the changes VIA is considering, and gave community members three minutes each to share their thoughts with the group after, even providing a Spanish translator for non-English speakers to contribute to the discussion.
Perhaps the biggest potential branch adjustment would be the consolidation of the Sightseer Special, Blue Circulator, and the E into one branch that would provide services between the McNay Art Museum and the Blue Star Arts Complex. VIA doesn't have a name for the new branch yet, and is referring to it as the "Cultural Route" for now.
Currently, the Sightseer Special travels as far north as the Witte Museum and as far south as Alamo Plaza, the Blue Circulator runs between South Town and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and the E line services a short two-mile loop between The Shops at Rivercenter, the Tobin, La Villita and everything in between.
Consolidating the three lines into one will provide a more streamlined route to and from popular destinations with more regular hours, including a service between the Pearl and Blue Star that would operate from 8-11 p.m. every 20 minutes, said Arturo Herrera, VIA senior service planner.
Local resident Anne Nally, along with several others, said she is "very happy" to see a potential line consolidation in the Pearl area, but is worried not enough people will know about it.
"These are obvious advantages for tourists but also great for locals, but the special blue holiday route was not advertised to locals and had very little usage as a result," she said.
The Holiday Blue Route was implemented last December and January as a "sneak peak" of a service between the Pearl and Blue Star Arts Complex.
*Update: VIA provided marketing and ridership date to the Rivard Report after this story was originally published. During its five week run from Nov. 27 through Jan. 2, almost 7,200 riders took advantage of the holiday route. That works out to be about 200 riders per day – not bad for a inaugural, limited-time route.
VIA's campaign – which included billboards, branded busses, print and online advertisements, and cross-promotional partnerships with other local entities – didn't reach everyone, but represented a concerted effort to get the word out to local riders.
The consolidation would still employ the downtown replica streetcar trolleys on the potential new "Red East/West Route" which would provide service between Centro Plaza and Alamo Plaza, but Manning said VIA is gradually phasing them out since the trolleys have "reached the end of their lifespans."
Other proposed route changes included a slight adjustment in Route 614 to provide service to Pearsall Park, and a new “mission trail service” that would provide stops at all of the city's five missions, including Mission San Juan and Mission Espada, an area that is currently under construction. Until construction ends, the “mission trail service” would extend as far as Mission San Juan, Herrera said.
Bennie Blansett, a retired bed-and-breakfast owner who lives on the city's Eastside, found no problem with the branch adjustments themselves, but instead with VIA's lack of presence in his neighborhood.
"We're forgetting about the Eastside of downtown," he said. "My concern is for my commercial neighbors who depend on visitors and tourists for their existence and their livelihood."
Blansett has experienced firsthand the lack of VIA branches on the Eastside, which frustrates him since the area, which is experiencing a resurgence, has so much to offer.
"If you go over to St. Paul Square and walk around there, there are beautiful buildings and French architecture – that could be the hottest spot in town," he said. "There have been I don't know how many businesses that have come and tried to make it and have gone out of business because they just can't get people to walk, or take a bus, under I-37."
The scarcity of bus stops extends past the city's urban core, said Barbara Crave who works on the Northwest side of town. She said she has to walk a long way from the bus stop to work on De Zavala.
"I'm asthmatic and it's hard for me to walk to get to that area, so I'm asking for wider transportation not just downtown but everywhere," Crave said.
VIA makes service revisions about three times a year to account for changes in ridership demand patterns and cost-effectiveness, Herrera said, and each time VIA hosts a meeting to gather public input. They value hearing the public's input, he added, and he was pleased that Thursday's meeting had a good turnout compared to previous meetings.
"It's hard to get folks to participate and come out to (the meetings), so it's always encouraging to hear their comments," he said.
Service suggestions that were not featured on Thursday meeting's agenda, will be considered by VIA at future public meetings, Herrera added.
The meeting's propositions and community feedback will be reviewed by the VIA Board of Trustees on Tuesday, March 22, and the final changes will be officially implemented on Monday, June 6.
*Top image: A VIA representative explains a potential route adjustment to community members at a public meeting. Photo by Camille Garcia.