VIA Transit: The Least Likely Choice of Airport Travelers

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
The VIA #5 McCullough stops at the far West end of Terminal B to pick up and deposit riders at the San Antonio International Airport. Photo by Lea Thompson.

The VIA #5 McCullough stops at the far West end of Terminal B to pick up and deposit riders at the San Antonio International Airport. Photo by Lea Thompson.

Accessibility is arguably one of the biggest hallmarks of a major city. Cities with major international airports like Seattle, Atlanta and Denver seek to provide travelers with accessible transportation options that get them from the airport to downtown quickly and cheaply using public bus services, light rails, and medium rail trains.

Ranked as the seventh most populated city in the country, San Antonio attracts millions of national and international travelers each year. The distance from the San Antonio International Airport (SAT) and the downtown business core is about a 15-minute car ride, and the airport provides a variety of ground options to take travelers to their downtown hotels and convention centers.

“In addition to the shuttle service and taxis, SAT has VIA (Metropolitan Transit) service at the far west end of Terminal B that includes a direct option to downtown,” Aviation Director Frank Miller said on Monday. “We are committed to the needs of our customers and do our best to help guide them to their final destination.”

Travelers heading downtown can expect to pay about $30 one-way for hotel shuttles and taxis. For a $1.20, riders can travel downtown on VIA’s Route #5, which the airport promises “can get to beautiful downtown San Antonio in about 30 minutes,” dropping off passengers within two to three blocks of many major downtown hotels.

When asked if the bus usually takes half an hour to get downtown, Suvanna Castilla, a security worker at the airport laughed and shook her head.

“You’re not going to get from the airport to downtown in 30 minutes,” Castilla said matter-of-factly. “It just depends on the number of stops that day, but if there’s passengers with disabilities it will take longer.”

The majority of out-of-town travelers opt for the speed and convenience of hotel shuttles and car rentals over the VIA route #5, which takes riders from the San Antonio International Airport to downtown. Photo by Lea Thompson.

The majority of out-of-town travelers opt for the speed and convenience of hotel shuttles and car rentals over the VIA route #5, which takes riders from the San Antonio International Airport to downtown. Photo by Lea Thompson.

But Castilla, like many other airport employees, opts to use VIA rather than pay for an employee parking permit, which runs up to $30 a month. Due to ongoing renovations and construction, the airport requires many employees to park at off-site lots before catching a shuttle that takes them to the airport within 30 minutes.

Castilla lives in the Olmos Park area, which is a stop on the #5 route that takes her to work everyday. She enjoys the half-hour commute, which allows her to avoid traffic frustrations and gives her time to read and relax.

“I avoid using the bus to get downtown,” Castilla admitted. “There’s been times when the bus takes like 60 stops before getting downtown, like a stop on every street, it’s horrible.”

While the bus is by far the cheapest option, it's not fast or consistent enough for those traveling on a deadline.

The VIA #5 McCullough stops at the far West end of Terminal B to pick up and deposit riders at the San Antonio International Airport. Photo by Lea Thompson.

The VIA #5 McCullough stops at the far West end of Terminal B to pick up and deposit riders at the San Antonio International Airport. Photo by Lea Thompson.

In 2014, VIA reported more than 505,500 riders used Route #5 for transportation. VIA has never surveyed passengers on Route #5 to determine who makes up the ridership, but the passengers on the bus can tell you that the number of residents far surpass the number of out-of-town travelers.

“I was born and raised in San Antonio,” Eddie Romero, a local rider on Route #5 said. “I grew up riding VIA, my mom often used it to get to work or to visit my grandparents. I would also use it after school and during Fiesta.”

Romero and his family recently moved from Canyon Lake to a new neighborhood in downtown San Antonio, and he realized that the VIA would be the best option for getting him from his home to his downtown job in less than half an hour.

“It’s super convenient and goes through quite a few different neighborhoods in the area before it gets to my stop downtown,” Romero added.

Edward Romero looks at the detailed architecture. Photo by Scott Ball.

(File photo) Edward Romero looks at the detailed architecture of the Bricoe Western Art Museum. Photo by Scott Ball.

International airports throughout the county offer customers bus services similar to VIA, offering transportation to the center of downtown. The Denver International Airport (DIA) partners with the Regional Transportation District (RTD) to provide SkyRide, which specifically provides bus service to and from the airport.

SkyRide buses run from 3:30 a.m. to midnight, and offer a variety of fares and destinations, including a $11 one-way trip to downtown Denver, which takes between 40-45 minutes. While San Antonio’s airport is less than 10 miles from its urban core, Denver’s airport is 25 miles away from the center of downtown at Union Station – without traffic. Unlike VIA, which uses the same bus model for all routes including the McCullough line, SkyRide buses are specially equipped to carry passengers with luggage comfortably.

Local rider Lori Grant struggled to keep her luggage from rolling across the aisle, as she rode the VIA #5 from a downtown stop to the airport.

Local rider Lori Grant takes Route #5 to meet her friend at the airport arrival gates on Thursday, June 25, 2015. Photo by Lea Thompson.

Local rider Lori Grant takes Route #5 to meet her friend at the airport arrival gates on Thursday, June 25, 2015. Photo by Lea Thompson.

“I’m meeting a friend at the airport, and I’m not coming back for a few days so I brought my suitcase,” Grant said. Grant has lived in several other Texas cities including Austin and Laredo, but she says San Antonio’s VIA provides the best public transportation.

“I used to use the #5 everyday when I worked (at the airport),” Grant said. “It’s a pretty smooth ride. It’s easy if you get in the mindset. You can go almost any time of day. It’s gotten better in the last five years, now they have better transportation for a lot more people.”

Similar to San Antonio’s VIA services, Atlanta’s MARTA system transports both residents and travelers throughout the city, including the downtown area. However, MARTA uses a combination of rail stations and bus routes to help get riders from the airport to downtown Atlanta within 20 minutes. MARTA picks up passengers every 10 to 20 minutes from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Seattle’s Link Light Rail service runs from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., Monday through Saturday, and picks up passengers every 7.5 to 15 minutes. The trip from the airport to central downtown costs $3 and takes between 20 minutes to half an hour.

“We have four Link Light stops coming into downtown Seattle, but the retail core of downtown would be at the rail’s final stop at Westlake,” said Kimberly Reason, a spokesperson for Central Link. “As of April 2015, there have been more than 34,000 riders a week.”

After San Antonio voters approved a charter amendment during the May 9 City Election that requires a public vote on any future light rail of streetcar projects involving the City of San Antonio, a rail project for the airport would have a large public outreach hurdle to jump.

This year’s Seventh-day Adventist convention brought more than 65,000 global visitors to downtown San Antonio. Since last week, thousands of attendees have been arriving at the airport, but most of them are heading straight for taxis or shuttles for car rental services and and hotels – not the bus.

L to R: Fernande Mercier and her companion, who flew in from Los Angeles for the 7th Day Adventist convention, wait for the VIA bus to arrive and take them downtown on Thursday, July 2, 2015. Photo by Lea Thompson.

Fernande Mercier (left) and her companion flew in from Los Angeles for the Seventh Day Adventist convention. They waited for the VIA bus to arrive and take them downtown last Thursday. Photo by Lea Thompson.

Tim Roosenberg, an Evangelical pastor based in Idaho, flew into San Antonio a few days earlier, renting a car to complete business in Austin before driving back to San Antonio for the convention.

Roosenberg said his hotel’s front desk recommended the VIA as a cheaper way to get from the airport to his hotel, otherwise he would have taken a taxi.

“I’d rather take the bus, it’s not worth the 20-something dollars a day to rent a car, I won’t even be here a full 10 days,” Roosenberg said.

“The shuttles make it a lot easier to get dropped off at the (hotel) lobby. That would be my guess why our group isn’t heavily using the buses,” Rosenberg added. “All I’m traveling with today is my grocery bag, so it’s not a pain to get my luggage around.”

Many local riders agree that the VIA system could stand to improve and expand their reach and their hours, but the people I spoke with on the bus didn't think an entirely new system, like rail, was the answer.

“San Antonio still feels like a big small town,” Castilla said. “Everything is 20 minutes from everything already. VIA is a good system, it just needs some refining. We need more buses to handle more stops, and faster routes. But there’s no reason to make this whole other system when we already have one that works.”

 

Related Stories:

Dreams of a Renegade Bus Rider

Electric Trolley Pays a Quiet Visit to San Antonio

City’s First Sustainability Forum Draws a Crowd

Denver’s MallRide Could be San Antonio’s Broadway-Blue Star Express

30 thoughts on “VIA Transit: The Least Likely Choice of Airport Travelers

  1. This article is great,because it exposes people in San Antonio to what is happening in other places. It seems the local attitude is that the current system “has it’s faults but works ok”. As someone who is 5th generation San Antonian and lived in Atlanta, LA, NYC, and Chicago and travel a lot for work, San Antonio DOES NOT have a transportation system to match it’s size or importance as tourist destination, and is woefully lacking. Whether voters feel the need to invest will depend on how it’s presented.

    This might be a better way to write the comparisons. take Atlanta, for example. San Antonio IS NOT similar, it’s much inferior.

    “Unlike San Antonio’s VIA services, Atlanta’s MARTA system transports both residents and travelers throughout the city, including the downtown area, using a combination of rail stations and bus routes to help get riders from the airport to downtown Atlanta within 20 minutes. MARTA picks up passengers every 10 to 20 minutes from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.”

    The major issue is who pays and how do you measure value..particularly when it seems people aren’t aware how much better it could be for not much more in $.

  2. Great article. I’ve used public transit to get in and out of the airport in a lot of cities (San Francisco, Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Seattle and Portland to name a few), but I’ve never even considered it an option in San Antonio. I agree with Steve Talbert, San Antonio’s public transit just doesn’t compare to other major cities.

  3. Also influencing the direction of public/mass transit in San Antonio is cultural. There are still a lot of very “thrifty” German stock here. This gets mixed in with the Independent Western/Texan who don’t want to wait in line or follow a crowd. Plus deep down there is still a colonial feeling to the elite social structure, whereby growing the economy isn’t the prime motivation in life like for striving cities like Houston or Dallas. It’s more like Ft Worth in that regard except it used to be regional capital and largest city in Texas for a long time… it’s closer to New Orleans or Charleston in that regard. Remember that sidewalks originally were only built if individual homeowners paid for them at subdivisions.

  4. VIA wants it to be hard to get from the airport to downtown. They also own Star Shuttle which is faster and much much more expensive. There should have been a light rail line from downtown to the airport many years ago. Now the line can even stop at the Pearl, The Zoo/Brackenridge/Trinity/IWC, the Quarry, loop 410 and the airport. San Antonio is way behind even Dallas, Houston, and Austin with public transport. It’s way way way behind other major metro areas nationwide. Salt Lake City even has better transport. That is embarrassing.

  5. via’s peak hours are 6am-9am and 3pm- 6pm, Mon-Fri, more buses on each route, get there 5 mins before set arrival time or you will wait for the next one. sat/sun is pretty much hourly. “i’m an ex-via bus driver”

  6. I’d like to point out the former head of VIA is now the CEO of MARTA, Keith Parker. That guy was awesome, in his stint here, he consistently did more with less than other Texas cities, instrumental in the BRT 100 route, and upgrading old buses. Really wish he would have stayed here.

  7. There are some railroad tracks adjacent to the airport. Are these the same tracks that lead to the Quarry shopping area? Are these the same tracks that lead to the Centro Plaza (the former Westside Multimodal Transit Center)? These are places where masses of people travel. These are the places suitable for light rail transportation services.

    • The other big issue regarding the rail lines available through the city is the fact that those are freights lines used by Union Pacific Rail Road (UPRR). If we are to include LTR, where will the freight go?

  8. I think the issue is, instead of trying to say we should build faster better things, we need to quit being pretentious and demand that companies like Via needs to do what its supposed to …. be accessible… If can say there is not enough money generated to accomodate that is pretty much the sign of San Antonio. So newer faster things isn’t going to even make things better, it will how ever show we have no idea how to make use of our money…

  9. As featured in ‘Cloak & Dagger’, an Atari tie-in kid movie filmed in San Antonio (available through Amazon instant video, etc), San Antonio used to have the 10 airport express bus from downtown . . . and direct flights to Puerto Rico, too, apparently.

    Signage still up at the haunted Scooby-Doo transit center at the Alamodome (near Amtrak and covered with solar panels) suggests past recent plans for an express bus to an Airport park and ride (and other park and rides) from there.

    I’m with the comments above suggesting a return of VIA airport express bus for now – as supported by eventual LSTAR I35 commuter rail to Austin / Georgetown running through a planned airport stop and 5 other stops in San Antonio (with the option for additional local rail service and stops along this same rail right-of-way in San Antonio). See the LSTAR route plan here: http://lonestarrail.com/index.php/lstar/map/

    For bus, I see a possible new PRIMO route starting at UTSA Main with stops at two shopping centers – Vineyard and Northwoods – before SAT and The Quarry to the Convention Centre / downtown.

    Run this new PRIMO route in both directions every 15 minutes (Convention Center – Quarry – SAT – Northwoods – Vineyard – UTSA Main), improve waiting facilities at all stops and see how we go.

  10. A point that hasn’t been mentioned is the placement of the VIA bus stop at the airport. Most cities place mass transit and larger capacity vehicles on the near side traffic lane and then place hotel and passenger cars on the other side of the median; San Antonio does the complete opposite. While this may seem to be a trivial difference, it has huge ramifications.

  11. Great article and comments, all of which point out what is lacking in SA mass transit. We have no dedicated mass transit from the airport to downtown; instead, a traditional VIA route is integrated with multiple stops. I had a similar experience traveling to/from Houston Hobby to Minute Maid Park. I took my grandson to see the Astros, flew into Hobby and then experienced an inefficient bus ride that stopped every few blocks. If a visitor to SA wants to fly in and see the Alamo, Riverwalk, etc – they can expect the same. I wish for a route from the airport to Quarry to Pearl to Riverwalk to Blue Star and back. Locals on the northside would use that often; however, that circuit would have to run while businesses were open, i.e.; into the late hours of the night. Similar routes could happen from the south, east, and west as well. Beats drunk driving.

  12. San Antonio has a Third World transit system. Period. Just look at what I would have to go through if I used nothing but VIA to get to Northwest Vista at 9:30 a.m. (ha!)

    I need to catch the 97 at 6:05 in the morning at Red Maple Woods and DeZavala. The ride is about 5-10 minutes to Silicon and DeZavala, where I have to wait until 6:36 for the 603 to take me to University Park/Ride. I will then ride another five minutes to University Park/Ride, where I will wait until at least 7:30 for the 660. In an hour and 25 minutes, I’ve managed to travel 4 miles and finally connect with the 660. But most days, the 660 won’t be there until 7:45 or 8:00 or even later. So it’s more like TWO HOURS to make this one connection four miles from my house. And VIA will invariably cut it way too close in getting me to class on time.

    That is completely unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable because VIA is too stupid and cheap to provide 15-minute bus service to a college campus. This is the ONLY major city I’ve ever lived in that did not provide frequent service to major colleges.

    If I had been UNESCO, I would have turned down San Antonio’s World Heritage bid for the lack of public transit to the Missions alone. One of the missions has zero service. Others have ONLY morning and afternoon service, with nothing else nearby as attractions or even places to eat during that time. What are those people supposed to do? Starve? Get dehydrated?

    If San Antonio thinks that they’re going to make tens of millions off of the Missions, they’re out of their minds. International travelers expect decent public transit in a city of this size, and they will NOT be happy when they come here and find transit worse than a banana republic. They will promptly spread the world to stay away, and they WILL stay away. It’s not worth their time or effort to come here. I’ve already told several people who have asked me about the missions NOT to come here, unless they are prepared to drive everywhere. When they hear that, they promptly decide to spend their hard earned money somewhere else. It’s one thing when the site is something like the Amazon Basin, where there’s little technology and an overriding concern about preserving the natural beauty of the site. It’s another when some buildings are in the middle of the 7th-largest city in a supposedly first-world nation. International travelers rightfully see the lack of transit in such a place as a slap in the face.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *