Rivard: The Time to Invest in Mass Transit is Now

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The new VIVA route buses will hit the streets on Monday, June 6. Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

The new VIVA route buses will hit the streets on Monday, June 6. Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

The SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Draft Plan and VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Vision 2040 plan both look to a future San Antonio with a population of more than 2.5 million people.

With vision, purpose and commitment, city leaders can shape a future San Antonio that will include light rail, HOV lanes, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) operating in dedicated lanes, a comprehensive network of bike lanes, and sidewalks on every street. Left to continue on its current track, San Antonio will experience ever-worsening air quality, highways choked with traffic congestion, appalling levels of pedestrian and cycling accidents and fatalities, and further declines in the city’s poor public health profile.

Which city do you and your children want to live in? The time to choose is now.

City Council is scheduled to adopt the SA Tomorrow plan in August. The link in the first sentence of this column takes you to the recently released draft of the transportation plan. At the same time, VIA’s staff is in the process of updating its 2035 Plan, renamed Vision 2040, with release of the draft due in early July. The VIA board of trustees is scheduled to adopt that new plan in August, so both the City plan and the VIA plan are progressing toward completion and adoption hand-in-hand.

They share something else in common: Both plans envision a multimodal transit system that exists now only on paper. The plans are unfunded, and thus are aspirational only. Citizens should not assume long-term transportation solutions are being adopted and enacted in San Antonio. Both plans could very well end up in the Master Plan Dustbin that has claimed so many other thoughtful, but unfunded and unenacted plans in the past.

The SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan is hundreds of pages long, but if you read nothing else, read the Executive Summary and then skip to the end of the report and read Section Seven: How Do We Get There? This is where the funding strategies and options can be found.

The draft plan is light on financial projections and models, but it does show that a variety of funding mechanisms and tools are available to address the chronically underfunded VIA Metro Transit agency, which serves a geography roughly equal to the Houston METRO service area, but does so with a bus fleet one-third the size running half as often in frequency, and thus attracting less than half as many riders.

Via riders arrive at Cento Plaza. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

VIA bus passengers arrive at Centro Plaza. Photo by Scott Ball.

San Antonio’s elected and appointed leaders at the City, at VIA, the County and at the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will have to set aside their natural inclination to defend home turf and come together to convince the public to fund long-term transit options. It’s unclear today that the political will to achieve that unity of purpose exists.

One only has to observe the inertia of the City’s Advanced Transportation District (ATD) Ad Hoc Committee, which was unable to reach consensus last week when it met again to consider Councilman Rey Saldaña’s proposal to shift $10 million in ATD funds from the City to VIA. That money would have helped VIA improve the frequency rates of bus routes serving about 60% of its ridership.

(Read more: Should the City Give VIA a Bigger Slice of the Sales Tax?)

Saldaña, who represents District 4 on the Southside, is one of the very few elected officials who has experienced more than token bus ridership. He parked his car for an extended period last year to gain a better appreciation of life for people in our city who have no other choice and rely on the bus as their basic mode of transportation. What he learned is that it is all but impossible to keep a schedule as a working professional, given the infrequency of bus arrivals, and it’s awfully hot at those bus shelters in the summer, too hot for a guy in a suit and tie.

(Read more: Saldaña Drops His Keys and Boards the Bus)

If a City Council committee and staff can’t agree on the value of a $10 million allocation to VIA, how can we expect the leadership of public entities to come together and agree on a multi-year funding campaign that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and, ultimately, several billion dollars?

“It’s clear to me that we have spent seven figures worth of funds, not to mention people’s time, in poring our aspirations into plans,” Saldaña said. “Have we executed with actual financial investments? Have we put our money where our mouth is? Pre-K 4 SA and downtown investments and incentives prove what is possible when we do.

“Both plans highlight the importance of collaboration with our partners,” Saldaña added. “VIA is the multimodal partner, and VIA doesn’t have a planning problem, they have an operating dollars problem. If we are to achieve our aspirations outlined in the plans, we need to fund them.”

The fact is that San Antonio had the same legislative authority that Dallas, Houston and Austin had to pursue up to a 1% local sales tax for its transit agency. Those three cities chose to ask their voters to levy the full 1%. In San Antonio, City Council chose to pursue only one-half cent.

In effect we “robbed” ourselves. A new generation of leadership will have to come together now and find ways to overcome that mistake. Otherwise, the SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan will never be realized.

VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt delivered a presentation to his advisory committee last week titled A Tale of Four Cities. It shows San Antonio badly trailing Dallas, Houston and Austin, where the public transit systems get their core operating funds from a one-cent sales tax allocation. VIA, in contrast, is allocated one half-cent, a decision made in 1977 that has had a profoundly negative impact on VIA’s development.

Dallas and Houston have light rail systems and larger, modern bus fleets. San Antonio remains the largest city in the country without light rail. Our city’s lack of light rail and dedicated lanes for BRT cause San Antonio to forgo million of dollars in Federal Transit Agency grants each year that could be financing more new buses, better bus shelters and additional facility projects that are currently financed with the VIA sales tax.

Houston Metro, on the other hand, was able to bank unspent sales tax revenue year after year and build deep financial reserves, enough to pay cash for its first light rail line.VIA cities

San Antonio’s sales tax rate is 8.25%, the maximum allowed under state law. The State of Texas collects 6.25% sales tax and then permits local jurisdictions local option sales taxes of up to 2%. These local option sales taxes are implemented through local elections. In San Antonio, the 2% local sales tax is comprised of five parts:

  • One percent goes to the City and is used to fill out its General Fund.
  • One-half percent goes to VIA and is the major source of operating funds for public transportation.
  • One-quarter percent goes to the Advanced Transportation District (ATD) for a variety of transportation improvements.
  • One-eighth percent funds the Pre-K 4 SA early childhood learning program. One-eighth percent is for aquifer protection and hike and bike trails.

The ATD sales tax is divided into three pots:

  • VIA gets half of the ATD funds and uses the money to pay for limited stop, express bus and PRIMO services.
  • The City gets one-quarter and uses the ATD dollars for sidewalks and traffic signal improvements.
  • The last one-quarter goes to Bexar County/Texas Department of Transportation and is used to help finance major roadway and freeway improvement projects. This one piece of the ATD is a leveraged fund, meaning withdrawals have to be met with matching funds from other partners.

It is highly unlikely at this juncture that the City will allocate any of its one-cent sales tax to VIA, but the SA Tomorrow plan does identify numerous funding mechanisms that can be deployed to make a sustained, long-term investment in San Antonio’s multimodal transportation future. The question is whether officials across different public entities will come together and take the political risk of asking the public to invest in transportation.

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) calls the SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan “a generational opportunity,” and he has called publicly for 2017 bond funds to set things in motion. It is not a call that others at City Hall have joined Nirenberg in making.

(Editor’s note: Both Saldaña and Nirenberg are being invited to submit commentaries expanding on their respective proposals to increase funding for VIA.)




Top image: The new VIVA route buses will hit the streets on Monday, June 6. Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit. 


Should the City Give VIA a Bigger Slice of the Sales Tax?

VIA looks to City for More Funding 

Texas House Rate, VIA Vote, and More on May 7 Ballot 

Via Board approves Downtown Route Changes for June

New ‘VIVA’ Bus Routes to Connect Missions, Urban Core 

8 thoughts on “Rivard: The Time to Invest in Mass Transit is Now

  1. Is VIA willing to admit that they flubbed in planning and implementing the Primo 100 as a rapid bus transit line? If not, they don’t deserve a chance.

    (All we got were newer, bigger buses running a few minutes more frequently. We did NOT get the major characteristics of RAPID bus transit: ticket machines at the stop where tickets have to be bought in advance instead of from the driver on the bus, specified in/out doors for a quick turn-around at each stop, dedicated bus lanes so that the buses do not have to weave in/out of traffic, or a direct route. [Instead, VIA forced Primo 100 to go out of the way to support the new Westside Terminal and, fortunately, have so far not implemented the plan they had to force passengers to CHANGE BUSES at that stop to continue on their route to downtown.]). Primo 100 still takes 35 minutes to get form Callaghan to downtown–the same length of time it took the old Skip bus because of the failures in planning and implementation by VIA–so there is nothing rapid about it!!!

  2. Nice piece…and spot on. No matter the ultimate specific solutions, we must have a serious conversation, make decisions and execute or we’ll see serious degradation in the future prospects for our community.

  3. Via will have to do more to attract me. Example: the VIVA route sounds great
    until you realize that it stops running about the time evening events begin.
    Even tourists venture out after six pm. Certainly locals would choose to drive or use other (more expensive) alternatives if the return trip must be by other means.
    Another example: event park and ride transit excludes areas within a five mile radius of downtown. I will not drive from Broadway to Crossroads to go to the Folklife Festival.

    • Francille, just go over to McCullough (north of St. Mary’s) from Broadway and catch the #5 bus going south for $1.30. It will change to #30 on the way, but you won’t notice it. It will drop you off just outside the Institute of Texan Cultures on Cesar Chavez for the Folklife Festival. Returning, remember to look for Bus 30 (the number used when the bus is south of downtown), pay $1.30, and ride until you get to where you want off on McCullough.

  4. This article makes some good points, but is only a starting point. For the life of me I cannot understand why supporters of Billion dollar commuter trains, light rail and super VIA busses will not explain to the public what the over-all funding plan is supposed to be.. I keep reading elsewhere how rare it is for mass transit to come even close to breaking even except in highly congested East Coast cities. In the Rivard Report I have read even more from the same Chamberof Commerce/City Hall types of their costly plans for expanded subsidized Latin America/increased direct big city direct Flights, a new expanded SA airport, a Billion dollar Regional Air Port in San Marcos and on and on. Long after bonds are sold and these mass transit trains and planes are operational, we will be making bond payments on time. However, additional public subsidy monies will be required from us year after year. VIA is still not a profit making institution after 50 years of operating. That is the nature of mass transit it seems. So, how many new Mass Transit bus,light rail, Austin-SA commuter train, plane projects can San Antonio sign up to subsidize their actual operation forever? Hope of them being financially profitable and virtually unique in all of America is neither realistic nor honest. I am not trying to be negative, but please explain in the next Rivard Report about Mass Transit. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for this article. I care very much about public transportation today and tomorrow. I moved to San Antonio two months ago without a car. Both my husband and use public transportation, bike, and walk. We are in our 40s this is our life choice to be car free. We hadn’t investigated the bus much but figured it would be adequate and got a bus passes our first month (which are very reasonable by the way, I think half the cost if where we came from). Without jobs yet and getting around during the day, for the most part the buses worked great for us except the few times we tried to take cross town buses (not going downtown) which ran only ONCE AN HOUR and not on Sunday. We also didn’t want to venture out too late because it is shocking how early the bus shuts down leaving from downtown. We are on the 5 to the airport, you’d think that would run until at least 11. But it doesn’t. Many times we wanted to hop on a bus downtown but then realized if we did we’d have to walk the 4 miles back. We stayed home. Now my husband got a job downtown that goes late. He can’t take the bus home, so he’s biking in and out instead. We stopped getting a bus pass after month 1 because we can’t get around easily by the current bus system now that we have jobs and limited time/shedules.

    Instead of promoting public transportation, uber and lyft are encouraged so people don’t drive drunk since public transportation can’t be used by many who would like to go downtown and get home safely. The new fun tourist lines sound great and I’m a tourist wherever I live but again, if San Antonio wants to get people out of their cars (and they need to or all the air we breathe will get worse), they need to have more buses more often that go where people who need to commute to work go. The hour buses need to run twice as much and there need to be later buses coming out of downtown.

    For the 7th largest city in the states, it’s strange to me how unused the bus system is. The buses are clean and comfortable, drives nice, price is cheap (compared to other cities). But I have yet to be on a full bus… or even close to full bus. But I finally heard why… funding and money is the root of the problem. There isn’t enough money for a big city bus system.

    I’m also curious about Light Rail, In my opinion, VIA shouldn’t tackle both or at least the bus and rail system should stay separate cost wise the way it is in San Francisco with BART. I say that because San Antonio needs to stay affordable as well with its public transportation. Light rail is expensive to build. Also I don’t think light rail should go through downtown. In Portland Oregon the light rail goes through downtown and is very slow and only two cars each are allowed because of short blocks. I’m on the fence about light rail. I know more people (professionals etc) will use it because it has less bad stigma attached as buses and stations might be air conditioned. But I think San Antonio needs to have a much more used and efficient bus system first.

    I don’t envy the people who are working hard on all this, and I hope I can be part of the conversation. I’ve filled out one survey for VIA at Siclovia and I’ve read through parts of the draft plan. I’m really excited for San Antonio and I hope through infrastructure and some really smart moves, and some more money, more people will be able to leave their cars parked (or even to give them up if they live centrally) because public transportation will work for them and get them to and from the places they need to go without taking twice the time it should.

    For now I’m mostly riding my bike now that I’m more familiar with routes and less busy cut troughs to get around. I can get home without worry and never have to wait an hour at the the bus stop.

  6. To keep this comment short, I’ll get to the point. I live in Phoenix without a car. I use the light rail daily and absolutely love it. I don’t take the bus because the bus stops are poorly designed to shade riders from the harsh Phoenix sun (it hit 115 this past weekend). I was born and raised in SA and nearly moved back last month after living in PHX for the past 4 years; however, not owning a car was a huge reason I didn’t. I’ve found a life in a car-centric city that allows me to live without a car. As Carye said above, the bus system is truly lacking and mostly due to funding, but as Dansk Tex stated, VIA has not proven itself worthy with terrible planning and execution of service. I make sure to point out to anyone that states PRIMO is BRT that it isn’t; it’s a glorified bus system that’s fallen victim to BRT creep.

    Yes, light rail is expensive to build, but so worth it, especially if connected to the airport. Going back to my moving back to TX statement, I considered moving to Dallas over SA because of the DART rail system.

  7. Personally, I have lived in many areas of the USA and Internationally. In my opinion the mass transit system in San Antonio is practically none existent. When the Mayor of NYC (Bloomberg) takes the subway to work that says something about mass transit. While San Antonians sit in congested traffic on IS 281,10, 35,410,1604 with railroad tracks blocking major intersections and we have a disjointed bus system for a population of 1.5 million citizens (and growing rapidly), I would say we have a problem. We are no longer a small town and we have big city problems. At the rate we are growing we will wind up with Austin style traffic in the not too distant future.

    I first moved here approximately 20 years ago and there was talk of a light rail system. I was all for it. Many I know were skeptical and I understand why, but let me tell you of a similar situation in Dade County & Miami in the early 1980’s. This project was a monorail it was called the train to nowhere. Public opinion ran rampantly against the project. It cost over a billion dollars to build. While I was leaving Miami in1984 it was just getting underway. There were very few riders and it was loosing money.

    Fast forward 30 years it is the primary source to transportation to commute into Miami from South Miami thus alleviating vehicular congestion. Along the commuter line there are new office buildings, housing, shopping malls and restaurants that never existed. It is now one of the more desirable retail, office, and living destinations in Dade county. You see there was a master plan. The nay sayers kept rallying against it claiming it will fail (shame on them).

    Many times it takes foresight and some money to alleviate congestions on roadways and build exciting new areas in our city. It is time to move 30 years out of the past and launch ourselves into the future.

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