Yet VIA's new comprehensive plan, passed by its board December 17, has drawn fire from critics — mostly VIA riders — who contend the plan excludes some passengers — particularly the disabled — and that it did not receive enough input from the ridership about.
Besides answering to critics, VIA's ominous challenge is grappling with San Antonio's sprawl, and Texans' love affair with their cars. The new plan tries to cover more than 1,200 square miles — without additional funding; entice more and new riders from farther-flung areas and eliminate what the transit system considers money-draining or redundant routes. VIA's coverage crisis is a manifestation of the City's lack of planning.
"Sprawl is a huge issue," says Todd Hemingson, VIA's vice president of planning and development. Hemingson is a Texas native who spent five years in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its efficient mass transportation. "Density drives public transit and the land use mix."
The expansion towards the City's North Side, particularly near and outside Loop 1604, has resulted in pockets of homes without commercial or retail development, isolated gated communities, discontinuous networks of streets, and cul-de-sacs — all scenarios that require residents to drive, but work against efficient mass transit.
"That's a message we politely say to the City: You can't build outside 1604 and expect service," remarks Hemingson.
A recent example is the PGA development, which for 15 years will pay no taxes on its property near 1604 and Evans Road. During the project's many hearings, critics asked how golf course employees — who at $10 an hour probably won't be living in that tony neck of the woods — might get to work. "Designing service to get there would be a huge challenge," Hemingson says. "We haven't been approached."
But until the City comes through with tax incentives for infill development — not projects over the aquifer or in the farthest crooks of the county — VIA will continue to be spread too thin, says Scott Erickson, transportation planner for the Metropolitan Planning Organization. "It is more difficult, the more sprawl you have to deal with. The City master plan and the Unified Development Code are a serious effort to start putting a lid on sprawl using more inner city and infill development."
Other than pricey downtown condos and the fledgling Victoria Courts project, there have been few overtures at rebuilding the City inside Loop 410. Mayor Ed Garza's Smart Growth committee (now rechristened as Sustainable San Antonio Group because developers balked at the original name because of its connotations with the anti-PGA contingent) is reportedly addressing the City's sprawl by designing incentive packages and scorecards for developers.
"The philosophy is to encourage it to be built closer," says Joanna Wolaver, assistant to the mayor for urban planning. "We're not going to give incentives outside of 1604 unless it's amazing 'green' building."
Exacerbating the sprawl problem is VIA's funding shortfall, which also prevents it from accommodating all the riders who want to use its service. VIA's primary funding source comes from the 1/2-cent sales tax; by comparison, Austin pays for its mass transit system with a one-cent sales tax. "The demand for service is greater than the budget," Hemingson explains. "There are difficult choices forced upon us. We can't serve everyone."
Under VIA's plan, which takes effect next June, some neighborhood routes with lower ridership will be eliminated in favor of larger, more frequent, and faster routes, including additional park-and-ride services for the suburbs. VIA's philosophy is that with buses running every 10 or 15 minutes, people would be willing to walk an extra five or six blocks to another stop.
Many riders, including the elderly, disabled, or parents with young children, are unable to hike the extra distance, says James Isaman of the Just Transportation Alliance. "The planners never had to carry laundry, a child, or groceries in the rain,"
Until the City reins in its sprawl, VIA will continue to struggle with the mutually exclusive goals of serving all riders in a huge area, while helping to reduce San Antonio's air pollution.
SOME DISABLED RIDERS LOSING ACCESS
Allen Townsend, a member of JTA explains that while some facets of VIA's new plan, such as faster, more frequent and predictable buses, will make it easier to ride mass transit, many disabled people will lose their bus routes through VIATrans.
But VIA may not be taking advantage of the available funding for handicapped bus services. Under federal law, handicapped riders living within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route are entitled to special bus service. With the elimination of some routes, about 79 riders — or 1 percent of VIA's disabled passengers — will have to find another method of traveling to the grocery, medical appointments, or to visit with family and friends — or risk losing their independence.
While VIA is offering $10 taxi vouchers to those qualified riders who are losing their access to VIATrans, Townsend said that amount won't cover the cab fare across town. "It sounds like a lot, but most of these people live out of the way or their service wouldn't have been clipped in the first place."
The Texas Department of Health offers funding to public transit systems for Medicaid recipients, but VIA doesn't receive any money. Dr. Linda Altenhoff, TDH's division director for medical transportation, said her agency buys bus tickets from VIA for Medicaid clients, but doesn't fund a program that would provide door-to-door service. "VIA hasn't submitted a request for funding," she said, adding that TDH awarded $43 million to other Texas transit systems this year.
As for VIA, Todd Hemingson, vice president of planning, confirmed it doesn't receive TDH money, but was uncertain why. "We'd love to get that funding," he said.