VIA Sees More Riders After Boosting Route Frequency, CEO Tells Council

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Last January, average daily ridership on the routes improved by City funding was about 15,000 passengers per day. Now, it’s 20,000.

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.

7 thoughts on “VIA Sees More Riders After Boosting Route Frequency, CEO Tells Council

  1. $14.3 million dollars increase ridership by 5,000 riders a day. Lets see, that is 1,825,000 additional riders a year for the $14.3M investment. First, is it 5,000 additional riders a day, or 2,500 riders who use those routes twice a day. According to VIA’s website ridership is defined as follows: “The transit industry defines ridership as the number of passengers who board public transportation vehicles—called unlinked passenger trips”. Interesting point is February 2019 avg weekly ridership is down 10,000 (109K vs 119K February 2018) from February 2018 vs. Feb 2019. That translates into a 5% increase in ridership at a cost of $7.80 per additional rider. How will those costs be recouped in the future? Will the city continue to fund VIA at this level? Third, are we really to believe that with a city that has a population of around 1.510,000 people VIA has 39,000,000 riderships? That is each citizen of San Antonio riding VIA 25 times a year or 12.5 round trips per year. Something smells about VIA, its ridership numbers, and who the heck is riding VIA. The money that goes to VIA could go elsewhere and benefit many more San Antonio citizens. I believe the purpose of VIA is to support businesses downtown to provide transportation for downtown workers and not to benefit the average citizen of San Antonio.

    • I ride VIA to and from work several times a week. I do not live or work downtown. I benefit from VIA greatly and I am very glad to have had access to the increased frequency of the buses at the stops that I use because it allows me more flexibility with my work schedule. I also used to use VIA often when I worked at my old job on the Westside and I lived on the Southside. I know I’m only providing anecdotal data, but I think you are being too cynical about VIA and its mission.

      A robust public transportation system is vital to any thriving metropolitan area, which means that the local government is going to need to invest in its success. Heck, even Greg Brockhouse says supports increasing San Antonio’s investment in VIA. Just because you don’t use it, doesn’t mean that VIA isn’t very valuable to many of us “average” citizens of San Antonio.

  2. The City and VIA should look at using the SE Alamodome parking lot as a City operated parking lot with a VIA bus stop for use by downtown workers. This lot is rarely utilized by the Alamodome during weekday business hours. This lot would then also generate new revenue for the City. Current downtown parking is only going to get worse with all the new developments in the area.

  3. DL – VIA tried that several years ago. They even installed a shelter in the parking lot! The pilot was eventually scrapped. Might be worth another shot?

  4. VIA at the Alamo Dome? Oh didn’t we already give them a lot of money for that once? We used to use those services all the time to go to events at the Alamo Dome. But they stopped it. Why? It was always packed, bus after bus dropping off and picking up people. It used to cost a few dollars and families could afford it.
    That seems to be a pattern with VIA. They do something, it lasts a few years, they shut it down, move it, change it, stop it, whatever, then a few years later it is implemented again. They do the same with bus routes.
    I do not understand why we only have huge busses. It doesn’t make sense to me. Why are there not smaller busses for the routes that do not have as many riders? I see huge busses with 2 or 3 people on them. It doesn’t seem cost effective. Everyone deserves the chance to ride the bus. Instead eliminating the smaller routes, why not service them with smaller busses?

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