SAN ANTONIO – VIA Metropolitan Transit is crediting more frequent bus service on some of its routes with helping to increase ridership numbers for the first time in several years.
While the transit agency says the uptick in riders helps to make a case for why a 1/8 cent sales tax should be diverted to its budget, a top executive also indicated more funding sources could be needed beyond that.
“It’s sort of proving out a hypothesis that we had about the importance of frequency and the importance of reducing wait times for customers,” VIA Deputy Chief Keith Hom said of the growth in ridership.
Until last year, the number of riders on VIA’s scheduled bus service had been declining since at least 2013, according to data provided by the transit agency. However, the total number of riders in 2019 was up from 34.8 million riders in 2018 to 35.3 million — a 1.4% growth.
When looking at only September through December, VIA saw an even bigger jump in the number of riders — almost 5.3%.
VIA credits much of the increase in the past year to its 18 “partnership routes,” which the City of San Antonio helped fund with a $4.3 million contribution in FY 2018 and $10 million contributions in FY 2019 and FY 2020.
With the help of that money, VIA increased the bus frequency — meaning buses come more often — along 11 routes starting in January 2018. Another three routes got increased bus frequency in May 2018, and four others got more frequent service in January 2019.
The transit agency said the average number of weekday riders increased by 18.1% along the routes following the increased frequency. For lines that changed to having buses every 12 minutes, VIA says there was a 25.7% increase.
The news of a ridership increase comes as a plan is being discussed to send approximately $36 million more annually to VIA, much of which would be used to increase frequency.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg has led the charge on a key funding element for the larger transportation plan put forward by Connect SA — diverting a 1/8 cent sales tax that funds the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and Linear Creek Parkways to VIA.
The tax’s current use expires in 2021, and Nirenberg hopes to find alternative funding sources for aquifer and park programs while convincing voters to send the 1/8 cent to VIA instead.
If the sales tax is diverted to VIA, a spokeswoman said the agency estimates “80-90% of funding will be invested in increasing frequency, with some initial investments in things like vehicles or technology to support that increase or improvement in service.”
Hom said the ridership numbers “absolutely” make a case for VIA getting the sales tax money if residents want more frequent bus service.
“I think this is about as hard evidence that you can get, proving the point that people don’t want to wait 30 and 60 minutes for a bus, which is what we’ve had traditionally here in San Antonio because we’ve been so underfunded,” Hom said. “So now with this new funding (from the city) and the increase in frequency, we’re seeing the benefits and the higher ridership.”
However, Hom said the sales tax revenue won’t be enough to provide better bus service to all of VIA’s routes.
“No, not initially. And so, you know, there are other efforts, perhaps in the future, to get us even further down the line in terms of providing that additional 1/2 cent that we’ve been missing,” Hom said, in reference to the 1/2 cent of sales tax revenue VIA receives in comparison to the 1 cent other Texas metropolitan transit agencies get.
“We had gone to the legislature last year to see if we could ask for additional sales cap, and those efforts did not pan out,” Hom said when asked about the “other efforts” he had mentioned. “And so we’ll probably be thinking about going back in the next session.”
Connect SA’s funding plans for 2020 to 2025 do not include raising any taxes, though tri-chair Henry Cisneros left the possibility open for future stages of the project.
“We’re going to wait and see how (the 1/8 cent sales tax) turns. Take one step at a time and then go from there,” Hom said.