Nirenberg: Yes, We Should Give VIA $10 Million – But It’s Not Enough

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Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Scott Ball.

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Scott Ball.

Imagine San Antonio in 2040. At the current pace of growth, average commute times will increase by 75% and half of San Antonio’s roadways will face gridlock traffic congestion. Our daily lives, in other words, will come to a screeching halt and the connectivity that we take for granted now will end. That’s not good for our economic, environmental, or mental health.

Luckily, we’ve taken inventory of our challenges and have developed solutions to tackle our transportation woes through SA Tomorrow.

The plan includes guidance on policy priorities and code updates and tells us where we should put our money to get the biggest bang for our buck. Most importantly, the plan places a laser focus on multimodal projects that will help us manage our growth by refocusing our efforts on moving people, as well as moving cars.

Although City Council took an important first step Thursday when they voted to approve the adoption of SA Tomorrow, which includes the Multimodal Transportation Plan, we still have a lot of work to do.

For starters, we need to remember that transportation reform in San Antonio cannot ignore the transit-dependent rider in pursuit of the transit-choice rider.

An outline of congestion development in SA Tomorrow's Multimodal Transportation Plan. Graphic courtesy of SA Tomorrow.

An outline of congestion development in SA Tomorrow’s Multimodal Transportation Plan. Graphic courtesy of SA Tomorrow.

Consider the story of Irasema Cavazos, an Eastside neighbor who lives close to the AT&T Center. When Irasema, now retired, was working as an elderly caretaker in the Medical Center, she would take three buses to get to her final destination. Her commute, just one way, could take up to two-and-one-half hours. In order to get to work on time, she would wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning and not make it back home until well past 8:30 p.m.

Today, Irasema helps organize domestic workers who face the same public transportation challenges in getting to their Northside jobs from the Southside of San Antonio. Citing lack of service frequency and delayed busses, Irasema wants nothing short of a complete overhaul of the public transit system.

Her pain isn’t caused by booming development that leads to gridlocked traffic. Instead, her neighborhood is one of many that faces disinvestment, making reliable public transportation inconsistent even as others around her continue to depend on public transit for their livelihoods. She deserves certainty and consistency, a basic level of service that VIA is unable to provide because it is underfunded.

VIA receives most of its revenue from a half-cent sales tax, while most other Texas cities enjoy a whole cent. VIA has done a stellar job with the funds that they’ve been given, but the fact remains that it’s not enough.

Irasema, and thousands of San Antonians just like her, deserve better.

That’s why I am grateful that Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) initiated the serious discussion about VIA funding through the Advanced Transportation District (ATD) ad-hoc committee. We must reassess current funding sources to ensure proper transportation funding, and we can certainly begin with giving VIA additional funding.

However, public trust in San Antonio – especially regarding transportation – is fragile, and I believe it would be a mistake to move forward with a transfer from the voter-approved ATD fund without clear consensus that such a transfer is legal and consistent with voter intent.

In 1977, San Antonio decided to go halfway on public transit by funding VIA with a half cent of the sales tax. People have called this a mistake. While it means that we didn’t plan our community accordingly, it also has enabled some of the signature initiatives that are vital for our city: a world-renowned watershed protection program that preserves critical land at pennies-on-the-dollar, a linear creekway system that is as extensive as any in the U.S., and a citywide preschool program that is being replicated across the country.

SA Tomorrow is trying to address the planning issue. I absolutely support the objective to bring new money into VIA, but I have reservations about transferring voter-approved ATD funds. We should seek unequivocal legal guidance and public reassurance before completing such a reallocation. In the meantime, we should set aside General Fund dollars as a fail-safe option, giving working people who rely on public transportation some relief now.

That’s also why I asked staff to provide alternatives – including a permanent set-aside from the City’s General Fund – that City Council can designate to improve VIA bus service for routes that serve our city’s most transit-dependent riders. This much is clear: We must improve funding for VIA as a basic, citywide transportation priority, and we must do it now.

To build and maintain a transportation system that can serve everyone, transportation funding cannot be a zero-sum game – especially not in a city that is projected to see such growth.

Two years ago, in the wake of the streetcar, I called for a comprehensive transportation plan, one that incorporates pedestrians, bikes, buses, cars, and rail. Today, we have that plan. For us to deal with the impending need of the next 25 years, we need an ambitious, voter-approved transportation package that moves major dollars and identifies new revenue streams. Identifying those revenue streams should be part of our 2017 State Legislative agenda.

Like cities around this state and the nation, it is time our development policy aligns with our vision for a more sustainable San Antonio for the 1.5 million people who already reside here, along with the million-plus new neighbors who will call our city home by 2040.

With the 2017 bond program on the horizon, the discussion about how to properly fund transit couldn’t have come at a better time. We now have an opportunity to make a major investment in transportation for the future, and we should not let the chance pass us by.

SA Tomorrow is here.


Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8).  File photo by Scott Ball. 

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Nirenberg to Lead Sister Cities International Board

Nirenberg: Celebrating 60 Years of International Relationships in Our Own Backyard

Nirenberg Calls For Light Rail Debate, Inclusion in 2017 Bond

Councilman Nirenberg: SA Tomorrow and the Road Ahead

21 thoughts on “Nirenberg: Yes, We Should Give VIA $10 Million – But It’s Not Enough

  1. Cool! Another Ron Nirenberg article in the Rivard Report. I would just like to point out that we’ve now seen at least 5 articles in the last three days in which the councilman is either featured or quoted . He’s even been quoted in stories about things happening in other councilmember’s districts when those council members themselves were not quoted.

    Do you know how many times you’ve quoted or posted an article from Shirly, Rebbecca or the Mayor over the same period of time?

    Thanks for continuing to be the councilman’s policy megaphone! We all look forward to watching you fawn over his announcement to run for the city’s top office the same way you did for Mike two years ago when he ran against two women!

    Thanks for continuing to champion women in our city!

      • You know, I am quite positive, 100% in fact, that the RR platform is available to any councilperson who might wish to utilize it. I appreciate the amplification of position that these opinion pieces provide. Keep ’em coming, Ron!

        • It’s not about the number of articles he writes. He can write until he is blue in the face. It’s about the number of articles that exclusively quote the councilman on every issue under the sun. They don’t even try to seek out an even number of quotes from west, south, and eastside members of council.

  2. I would love to see some ridership and financial numbers regarding VIA. To make it simple, take all the annual funding for VIA and divide it by its ridership (you can count a passenger going from point A to point B and back to A as two passengers. What is the cost per passenger for each rider. Then the debate on whether or not we are getting value for the dollars spent can begin and whether or not more should be invested into VIA.

  3. VIA does have a funding problem, but funding is not the root cause of low frequency transit service in San Antonio. Urban form and transportation system design make frequent transit service across the VIA service area impractical. The Multimodal Transportation Plan attempts to address some of the root causes by adding additional facilities for transit services on the city’s street system. However, it simultaneously attempts to improve or maintain single-occupant vehicle level of service. I am not aware of a single city that has both free flowing auto traffic and quality transit service. The Multimodal plan’s emphasis on maintaining free flowing traffic will more likely lead to growing use of single-occupant vehicle trips by 2040 rather than preference for transit.

    Cities with quality transit systems that appeal to choice-riders win those riders because transit is a better choice than driving, not because of equity between choices. If the goal is to genuinely improve transit service, then focus on improving transit service and recognize you cannot simultaneously have world-class auto-dominant and transit transportation systems. Unless, of course, there is an example somewhere in this world I’m just not aware of.

  4. Consider this story:

    $15 million dollars to expand single-occupant vehicle capacity 4 lane-miles. Alternatively, we could have rejected the temptation to add more lanes and instead addressed that demand with transit. That outcome, as noted by TxDOT, will be traffic volumes that exceed expectations. In other words, a 2-mile, $15 million dollar highway project to relieve congestion that instead creates more congestion and does zero to improve transit service. It adds walking and cycling infrastructure, but look at the picture. Who will walk or ride there? Certainly not people with a choice.

  5. The problem is the vast majority of citizens ptefer auto transport than public transport. I don’t think trying to force them into public transport is a good idea or one they will tolerate.

    • An argument could be made that you are forced to drive today, just because there are few other practical options for most residents.. On the other hand, there is a city in the U.S. where 71% of the population commute by some mode other than automobiles, and 55% of those residents commute by public transit. It seems they tolerate it.

        • Infrastructure always helps people have more choices and if San Antonio put more money into bus transit, more people would ride which is win/win for all (air quality, etc). I am currently able to walk to work and bike for most of my every week errands (grocery, post office, library) and I use the bus only for further distances as needs come up.

          This past week I’ve been pretty frustrated with my options when I needed to get to specific places without a car. (I am carless by choice, but also I couldn’t really afford it with the job I have any other variables in my life).

          For example I needed to go to the DPS to get my driver’s licence updated (Ironically since I don’t drive, but I like to keep an I.D. and be able to drive if I needed to). There is no location centrally located near downtown so what would be a 10-20 minute car trip to Leon Valley for tsomeone else with a car is now a 1.5 hour bus commute for me, each way… and then there was problems with my paperwork so then I had to bus home, bus back, and then finally I was done at 5pm after spending most of the day on buses because one bus I needed runs once an hour.

          Another example is I need some specialty printing papers and needed to go to a store between the airport and North Star Mall. Once again I’m dealing with a bus that runs once an hour so the entire trip + shopping would take 30 minutes if I had a car, now takes 2.5 hours. Not a lot of people are going to choose these options!

          My first change is no more once an hour buses.. every 30 minutes at the very least….of course no one is on them, they don’t run often enough. Also creating better stations. Primo has it all but other bus lines have zero shade. I was waiting for a bus this past week that was late and had to give up because I was melting and getting heat stroke. Also just a side note it’s nice to have garbage cans at the bus stops but they are uncovered and people throw their dog poop in them and when the sun heats it up, well.. waiting for the bus becomes less desirable.

          I believe the bus IS a desirable way to travel if the infrastructure is there and there are frequent buses. I love letting someone else do the driving and you can save so much money by not owning a car. The bus system here is very affordable compared to other cities as well . And also on a hot day, the air conditioning is pretty nice.

    • Do they really prefer it? Or is it that auto transport has been given legal authority over the vast majority of what used to be our public spaces and been given extreme amounts of funding over the last century?

      Your other point about quantifying the cost of rides is an interesting exercise… It looks like there was $200 million in non-operating revenue in FY15 and 42 million rides (including ~1 million rides using the vastly more expensive VIATrans service). To add to that exercise… What do you propose we do with the people that currently use the system? They still have jobs, school, and life to get to. We would also need to be able to find a place to put the cars that would need to be added to our roads and highways.

      • You too make a good point. If your numbers are correct, the cost per rider is no where near as expensive as I thought. In regards to those who might be left out of transportation, don’t people have many other needs that are not met by city programs? Why has the city decided transportation is something they need to offer its citizens? I’m not trying to be combative, I’m curious as to why needing to provide transportation to its citizens became a priority over other needs its citizens have that could be supported.

        • I got them from VIA’s annual fiscal report ( for FY2015. One critical thing to understand about transportation today is that it is all subsidized. So, I would make the same argument about streets in general: why do we think that the government should support highways and streets (much less cul-de-sacs)? A lot of people argue that they are covered by the gas tax, which hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1991 even as costs for construction have skyrocketed and fuel efficiency has increased.

          My personal opinion, is that transport is a public good and should be supported by the government. I understand that other people have different views and I would potentially be able to get on board with those as well. Most people with these views don’t seem to understand that non-mass transit is massively subsidized by the government at this point. If they want to change one, both should be changed at the same time (again, my opinion).

          It’s really interesting to look at transportation history in the US. Cars and the suburbs are a relatively new experiment. I personally don’t believe that a majority of people want to live in suburban environments. Over time, policies in zoning, housing/financing discrimination, and laws have made that style of living cheap and easy. It definitely has some advantages but also has major drawbacks. I think you can see some reversal of the trend of suburbanization unfolding across major cities in the US right now. It’s also true that Millennials will generally move out to the suburbs as they age (which is okay, since the next generation and boomers will fill these spots). There are a multitude of reasons for Millennials moving out, the biggest is cost. If they try to go from a starter home to something where they can have a couple of kids, the housing stock available is not in the price range they can afford, especially if they decide to send children to private schools (schools are the huge reason for my friends relocating). It would be really interesting to see what would happen if subsidies were removed and people really had to start paying for their decision to live in a less dense enviornment including costs of streets, water, sewer, electricity, fire and police coverage.

    • If I still lived in the hill country, I would much prefer to let someone else do the driving. A quick light rail system, even better. As it stands, there is no choice.

  6. I would love to see more money funneled into via. I use to live downtown in Southtown and my commute by bus would have taken 2 hours! From Southtown to USAA. That’s not acceptable

  7. More folks with limited mobility could use regular bus service if physical access was provided. ADA conforming sidewalks are not enough. Riders must be able to cross busy four lane streets
    or otherwise reach bus stops safely.
    VIATrans service, though critically important for certain riders, is expensive and not convenient for many others.
    Traffic calming devices would help, as would short circulator routes to allow slow walkers and wheel chairs to safely reach stops on the opposite side
    of the street. You can’t ride the bus if you can’t get to it.
    By the way..what is meant by those who talk about a “cost effective” bus service? A service isn’t effective for those served if it isn’t available.

  8. In 2040, most of the CBD transportation across America will be done by self-driving vehicles that use data analytics to understand usage, flow and frequency. People in the CBD will drastically reduce the ownership of autos as the cost of Uber/Lyft/Google etc will be less than a bus and go directly where you need to go and at the exact time you need to get there. Less parking, less vehicles and better transportation options through technology and further disruption of antiquated systems.

  9. If the Councilman really championed Via, maybe he should consider giving them the 15 million going to a land bridge in his district

  10. Take the $10M….add to it the money we have spent and could have spent on the “Baseball Pipe Dream” and give it all to VIA. Wait a minute though…that would be taking care of the needs of the citizens…..and taking away for legacies. Politically unheard of….

  11. he wants to give VIA 10 million for Light rail?
    So when his council term is up he will have a job with VIA cause he wants to give them money. the people voted NO 4 times on this and then the Mayor Taylor said NO as well. they need to start listening to what people want and not want they think we want.

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