greater:SATX sat down with VIA Metropolitan Transit President and CEO Jeffrey C. Arndt to find out more about this organization benefitting thousands of San Antonio residents.
- Tell us a little bit about VIA and its presence in the San Antonio region.
This year is VIA’s 45th year in operation. VIA was created in 1977 by the San Antonio voters to provide public transportation services within Bexar County, and specifically within the areas that voted to assess the 0.5% (half-cent) sales tax to support the operation. We rolled out service in 1978 and currently serve about 95% of Bexar County. Since its inception, has always been an industry leader with a reputation of excellent operations and customer service. We are always striving to serve the needs of the community, and running a competent service for a community that has a large percentage of people who rely upon public transportation. When I joined the company, VIA was known throughout the industry as being a real example of the most bread-and-butter operation at the highest level of performance.
Right before the 2010s, there were changes in leadership at the CEO and board level and with that came the question, ‘Shouldn’t VIA reflect the needs of San Antonio today, not of the San Antonio 35 years before?” Our team has worked hard to determine how we can continue to improve service to the community and to design service that’s more attractive — from facilities, operations, and amenities that improve the experience for our customer. Since I assumed the role of CEO, a little over a decade ago, we’ve committed to these conversations and improvements for our VIA customers.
- What makes VIA stand out amongst the transportation providers in our state?
VIA is esteemed within the transportation industry for our passion for our customers, outperforming other large metropolitan areas in terms of amenities we strive to provide. VIA was the first transit system in the country to entirely equip its buses and VIAtrans vans with free, high-speed Wi-Fi. That became more significant during COVID when we parked vans near housing communities so that students would be able to access Wi-Fi to get their schoolwork done. This is a real achievement at a national level.
Additionally, we went into a large campaign to install covered stops throughout the service area to provide shelter for customers waiting for their bus. In just over two years, we put in 1,000 new shelters, which made San Antonio a city with more shelters on the street than Houston and even Los Angeles. A little over one-third of our bus stops have shelters, which is pretty significant for a large system.
In 2018, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff created a task force called ConnectSA to address the transit needs of our community, expected to grow by roughly a million people over the next two decades. The tri-chairs selected were former San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of State and past VIA Board Chair Hope Andrade, and former City Attorney Jane Macon. They were charged by those two public officials to pull together people in the transportation sector to identify where funding comes from, where funding was going, and to identify the gaps. Not surprisingly, the largest gap was in the arena of public transportation. Most of the report ended up centering on public transportation, so we developed a plan that we called Keep San Antonio Moving (KSAM).
KSAM is a collection of projects designed to improve mobility for all San Antonians. The voters approved a 1/8 cent share of existing sales tax coming to VIA in 2026 to fund better bus service, more mobility options, in preparation for the new Advanced Rapid Transit (ART) system, known as VIA Rapid.
The VIA Rapid Green Line will connect customers north to south in San Antonio, and we have finished 30% of the design and completed the environmental work. Right now, we are on hold while the Federal Transit Administration reviews our work and advises when we may move into final design. The engineering would take about a year. We would then go into construction and testing in late 2024. The line would open tentatively in mid-2027 to late 2027.
- How do you see VIA growing in the future and continue positively impacting our Greater San Antonio region?
I’ve mentioned the Advanced Rapid Transit system at the process for the Green Line and there are several ways that this new development will impact our region for many years to come.
There are a couple of things that really drive people to ride public transportation, particularly important for people who have options when choosing how to get from point A to point B.
The first and foremost driver is frequency of service.
We know, based upon local research, national research, and our own experience, if you can get your frequency and service around every 10 minutes, that gets you to that sweet spot where people don't feel like they have to look up when the next bus is coming because the waits are a lot shorter. If you have to transfer and you have two high frequency lines, it's not a such a ponderous deal. Our intention is to be at a 10-minute frequency during the week and 15 minutes on the weekends on the rapid transit lines to ensure that customers can get where they need to go with shorter wait times.
The second one is reliability and – tied to that – speed.
Our customers want both of those. That's where the physical improvements come in for what we call Advanced Rapid Transit, or VIA Rapid. To be eligible for the federal funds, we have to have at least 50% of the route operating in dedicated lanes, which can include either center of the street lanes, like light rail systems or curb-running lanes that can be open to right turn and driveway traffic too. The Green Line, which will connect customers north to south in San Antonio, is primarily those two mixes. The dedicated lane increases your reliability and your speed. Additionally, our rapid transit vehicles will communicate with the traffic signals along the way. That's going to help speed, tremendously.
The third thing that is really going to help is that we are going to collect fares in the station areas and not on the vehicle. The bus is going to have three doors and doors on both sides to accommodate the center curbs. Collecting fares on the bus tends to slow things down, so this improvement will cut down on dwell time, significantly. Those characteristics all will improve the speed, the reliability, and the frequency, and so it's a game changer from that perspective. All our rapid transit lines are conceived in that manner.
The proposed VIA Rapid Silver Line, which will connect west to east, will be the same concept. It’s going to operate in the Commerce Street corridor from General McMullen through Downtown and then we will transition on the east side to Houston Street. What makes Silver Line really attractive to both VIA and to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is that, outside of Downtown, it runs through areas of persistent historical poverty, where equitable access to frequent, reliable transit puts more opportunity within reach to uplift communities.
Silver Line is just in the planning stages but will also be transformative to San Antonio.
- How would you like to see the San Antonio region continue to grow and why did you invest in greater:SATX?
VIA is not a bus company. Yes, we do have buses. There's no doubt about that, and we use those buses. But it's what we use them for that matters, not the bus. It's the connection to opportunity for people. That need for connection. We provide connections to jobs, to job training to education to dialysis and many of our customers’ lives depend on that ride. These really are essential trips, and so that's what we are. We connect people to opportunity so that the quality of life can come up for everyone. That's my VIA vision for helping San Antonio grow.
- Is there anything you would like to share?
What separates VIA from all other transportation projects is that we are a mobility provider, as opposed to an infrastructure provider. We must have infrastructure of our own in order to fuel a compressed natural gas bus, or to have a transit center. You have to build some infrastructure. But we also leverage all the other investments in infrastructure and roads and highways. That’s what differentiates us, so when we talk about what we do, ultimately, we can talk about stories, about people.
I'm going to share one of my favorites with you about a young lady. Her name is Maria Garcia-Garcia, and she graduated in 2021 from the Young Women's Leadership Academy of San Antonio. She was going to MIT, with a double major. She graduated No. 2 in her class. She used VIA to get to school and as she said that if she hadn’t had VIA, she could not have gone to this school. Her life is going to be transformed by what she's doing and we provided that connection, an opportunity for better quality of life. When we interviewed the administrator of the Academy, she said one-third of the girls who attend the young ladies at Leadership Academy were reliant upon VIA to get them to and from school, and their lives, because of that opportunity, will be transformed. There's no doubt about it, and that's what puts a smile on my face.
I’ll end by saying I would like to see all ships rise in San Antonio, as the saying goes. See all ships rise. This is a wonderful place, and the only mistake I may have made in life was not getting there sooner.