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Stuck Behind The Wheel: How Rapid Bus Service May Reduce San Antonio Congestion

Here are a few facts guaranteed to get your attention:  

The San Antonio area adds 146 new residents every day, and they’re bringing their cars.

A 50 minute drive today is expected to take 91 minutes in 2040.  

By then, 39 percent of our roadways will be severely congested all day long.

This week Texas Public Radio’s “Growing Pains” project takes a look at options for getting ahead of the traffic jam,  with a series of reports, “Stuck Behind The Wheel.” We start by looking at how San Antonio’s primary form of mass transit could be part of the solution. 

Every day, tens of thousands of people in Bexar County like Dalia Slocome board a VIA bus.   

“I like VIA. It’s not a bad system. It’s a safe way to get to places and I like that,” she says.

VIA Metropolitan Transit covers 98 percent of Bexar County and has 95 routes.

VIA is Slocome’s main method of transportation because she doesn’t know how to drive. Her only complaint about the system is about frequency.

“Instead of every 15 minutes the bus come try maybe 10,” she says. “I know it’s probably impossible to make it any faster than that but that would be nice especially when it’s cold or raining.”

It actually is possible to increase the speed and frequency of San Antonio’s bus service. That’s what VIA and City Councilman Rey Saldaña want to do. “If you miss a bus by a minute or two that means your next bus is not coming for another 45 minutes to an hour,” Saldaña says. “It’s incredibly difficult when your work or employment depends on being on time like all of ours does.”

Credit VIA Vision 2040 Plan / VIA Metropolitan Transit
VIA Metropolitan Transit
Portions of VIA's current service routes. The routes are color coded based on arrival times.

I’m riding the 51 bus with Saldaña. A 51 bus will come to most of its stops every 20 minutes on the weekdays during peak periods. That increases to every 30 minutes on the weekends. Sometimes the intervals between stops are a full hour.  “We’re still stuck in a system where we’re behind in planning a system that works for everybody not just those at the bottom but those who would like to have a choice and leave their car at home,” Saldaña adds. 

Brian Buchanan is VIA’s senior vice president of development. He says improving frequency is one of the agencies top priorities, but it will take more money.

“We are working with our partners to find additional funding to get those frequencies down,” Buchanan says.” We’d like to see buses coming every15 to 20 minutes. We feel that that’s appealing to a transit rider, not only those that need transit but also those that have other ways to get around.”

VIA’s attempt at faster bus service is what led to the launch of VIA Primo in 2012.

Primo buses are called articulated buses. They’re longer and have a center that looks like an accordion to allow it to turn corners. A VIA Primo station will see a bus about every 10 minutes on the weekdays and 15 minutes on the weekends.

Right now there is one Primo line with a couple of extensions.  They have about 5 percent more passengers than regular bus routes.

VIA President and CEO Jeffrey Arndt says the Primo buses can move faster because they stop less frequently and have a signal priority system alerts traffic signals to turn or stay green. 

”What you’re doing is talking to the traffic signal and trying to either stretch the green so you can make it through or shorten the red so you don’t have to wait as long,” he says.

By next year VIA plans to add two more Primo routes on Zarzamora Street on the West Side and Southwest Military Drive.

Buchanan says the transit agency is also exploring the possibility of Bus Rapid Transit. It would be faster than Primo because it wouldn’t be on the street competing with other traffic.

“In other cities there is bus rapid transit where it actually operates in its own dedicated lane so it has its own right-of-way in which it operates,” Buchanan says. “And that usually allows the service to be more reliable and add that frequency through the corridor.” 

Credit VIA Metropolitan Transit
VIA Metropolitan Transit
This graphic shows VIA's Vision 2040 plan with expanded VIA Primo routes and a potential plan for Bus Rapid Transit

Councilman Rey Saldaña says he considers Bus Rapid Transit a solution to moving more people.

“We have to adapt to the reality that we’ll have more people,” he says “More people getting to jobs, more people getting to appointments like doctors and schools. I keep repeating this but you need to give buses an advantage and a BRT has an advantage over the vehicle in that it doesn’t sit behind traffic or congestion.”

Bus Rapid Transit is in VIAs 2040 Plan but right now there’s not any money for it.  VIA depends on revenues from a half cent sales tax compared to a full cent sales tax available to transit agencies in cities like Austin, Houston and Dallas.

Put another way- from the sales tax VIA gets $93 per area resident. In comparison, Dallas gets $213.

Arndt says VIA needs additional money if the city wants Bus Rapid Transit.

“The half cent sales tax in San Antonio won’t fund that level of improvement,” he says. “So we are making a number of improvements within that half cent but that half cent can only buy so much.”

In November, the San Antonio City Council declined to provide additional funding from sources other than the sales tax to expand and improve VIA’s service.

Community leaders like Rey Saldaña say finding the extra money will determine whether mass transit in San Antonio keeps up with the times, and the thousands of new residents who will be traveling around the region. 

Following the publication of this story the City of San Antonio requested we provide this information. 
"In November, the San Antonio City Council asked City staff to delay additional funding to VIA until after the Texas legislative session. A proposal is being considering by the legislature that would cap the amount of revenue a city can collect, which would impact the City of San Antonio’s general fund budget."

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules
Jan Ross Piedad Sakian is TPR’s News Operations Producer. In this role, she develops strategy on collaborative and digital initiatives for the station. Since 2016, Jan Ross has served in a coordinating capacity for TPR’s state and national partners, including The Texas Newsroom.