San Antonio bus rapid transit plans get initial federal funding approval

VIA Metropolitan Transit’s plans for a citywide “advanced rapid transit” system featuring more buses running at shorter intervals on dedicated lanes have reached a funding milestone, with approval Federal Transportation Administration initial for its inaugural route.

This first north-south line, estimated at around $320 million, would connect San Antonio International Airport to downtown on San Pedro Avenue and extend to neighborhoods in Southtown, and in the best-case scenario would be open for service in mid-2027.

“This is an important next step for VIA and San Antonio,” said VIA CEO Jeff Arndt, “and the first time we’ve been able to compete for significant federal support in the provision of a modern public transportation system to move San Antonio. ”

The FTA will conduct another evaluation of the proposal in about a year, Arndt said, adding that VIA’s Advanced Rapid Transit program was competing for funding with dozens of proposals from other urban areas, some of which feature a subway. lightweight.

San Antonio has no current light rail project, once the darling of city planners and cities like Denver, Portland, Dallas and, more recently, Austin. Local leaders such as Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and former Mayor Henry Cisneros – all fans of light rail in the past – have grudgingly stated in recent years that light rail now seems to prohibitively expensive for most cities.

San Antonio’s ART system—essentially the same as other cities’ “bus rapid transit” programs—should have been funded years earlier, but at the height of the pandemic, Nirenberg strove to transferring essential funds to the city’s jobs and recovery program. Salvation for ART came in 2020 when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposal B, which secured funding for an 1/8 cent sales tax to be allocated to VIA beginning in 2026.

The federal funds sought by VIA were dedicated before President Joe Biden took office, but were bolstered by Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure program, Arndt said. They will be combined with local Prop B money – around $160 million – to fund the first ART route, which VIA designers hope will one day join at least six major ART routes dissecting the county. But this network could be in 10 to 20 years.

VIA describes ART as “a modern, high-quality transit system that provides frequent service in dedicated lanes and outside of regular traffic. The system includes signal priority, off-board fare collection, elevated platforms and more widely spaced stations.

This ART bus, with loading doors on both sides, will pass through the middle of San Pedro on its northern stretch where it is now six lanes wide, then move to a curb lane when the avenue narrows to four more lanes. near downtown. , Arndt said.

Adrian Romo patiently waits for his bus in 2016. Romo says he takes the bus every day. VIA’s plans for a citywide “advanced rapid transit” system, including more buses running at shorter intervals on dedicated lanes, reached a federal funding milestone this week.

Kin Man Hui /San Antonio Express-News

VIA hopes that wait times will not exceed 10 minutes between buses. The ART line will eliminate some intermediate stops in order to travel faster, which will require some passengers to walk a little further to get to their neighborhood.

City planners realized decades ago that the biggest bottlenecks in efficiently boarding buses occur when people walk up the stairs to the gate, then sometimes fumble for fares, get transfers or ask for directions. All of this can be done in advance, on a raised platform where today a bus shelter would be. When the bus arrives, passengers won’t have to do anything but walk straight and sit down.

ART buses won’t be able to accelerate through red lights like an emergency vehicle, but they can shorten the wait at a red light or increase the duration of a green light, Arndt said.

If few things sound very “advanced,” the “A” in ART represents the hope that one day buses will be fully electric and possibly self-driving. For now, the FTA’s initial approval of the ART program has been deemed sufficient to begin “public engagement” for the San Pedro line, something to celebrate for an agency that has seen its access to resources fluctuate at key moments during its years of modernization efforts. .

VIA Metropolitan Transit buses are seen in 2020 with downtown behind them.  VIA's plans for a citywide

VIA Metropolitan Transit buses are seen in 2020 with downtown behind them. VIA’s plans for a citywide “advanced rapid transit” system, including more buses running at shorter intervals on dedicated lanes, reached a federal funding milestone this week.

William Luther / Staff

San Antonio never allocated the full 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax allocated to transportation, as did voters in Dallas, Houston and Austin. He shares the tax with other needs, giving VIA half a cent on the dollar, hundreds of millions of dollars less.

The specific pot of money that would propel San Antonio’s ART program, the capital investment grant program, has survived through several Republican and Democratic administrations, said Arndt, who has led VIA since 2012.

He didn’t seem worried that it could be slowed or stopped if Republicans, who have opposed some off-road transportation spending as wasteful or socialist, regain control of Congress or the presidency.

“We can’t predict what’s going to happen (politically),” Arndt said. “We just keep our heads down and move forward.”

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