VIA Metropolitan Transit President and CEO Jeff Arndt says support from the Biden administration and an influx of federal COVID-19 aid money is accelerating the timeline of San Antonio’s plan to offer fast bus services from downtown to San Antonio airport.
Speaking to business and city leaders in the transit state of San Antonio at the Witte Museum on Friday, Arndt said construction of the $320 million north-south portion of the Advanced Rapid Transit Map is now scheduled to begin in 2025 and be completed in 2027. This is five years earlier than VIA had anticipated it would take to complete the project without federal matching funding, for which it leveraged COVID relief funding -19.
The North-South Project is set to receive $158 million from President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget, thanks in part to the city’s ability to demonstrate a matching funding plan. It did so, Arndt said, by using federal pandemic relief money to fund day-to-day operations while diverting some of VIA’s normal funding to a reserve.
“What really changed was the fact that we got COVID relief funds from the federal government,” Arndt told reporters after the event. “We were able to use them to pay for operating expenses during COVID…thanks to that, we were also able to keep some of the sales tax that we would have spent, which that replaced.”
VIA currently receives half a cent of local sales tax revenue. 2020 voters approved the use of an additional eighth of a cent of sales tax revenue beginning in 2026 as additional funding for VIA.
Arndt said VIA’s board was able to put about $200 million into a reserve that allowed it to seek federal matching funds. San Antonio had not received a Department of Transportation grant in over a decade.
“Now we could go to the federal government and say, ‘Hey, we have the funding. We have the home game,” Arndt said. “We are implementing VIA Link services several years earlier than we could have, because we really couldn’t afford to do more. [on our own] until 2026.”
The north-south line would begin at San Antonio International Airport and run in dedicated lanes along San Pedro through downtown, extending past the Blue Star arts complex in Southtown. The zero-emission rapid transit buses are meant to speed up airport transportation by operating in their own designated lanes, using traffic light prioritization and an external payment system.
The project is currently undergoing environmental reviews before construction can begin, Arndt said.
The project’s east-west segment would extend from General McMullen Drive on the west side to near the AT&T Center along parts of Houston and Commerce streets.
It has not received the same support because VIA has not yet blocked local matching funds. But, Arndt said, it sparked interest from the Federal Transit Administration, which has been an enthusiastic partner in San Antonio’s rapid transit ideas.
Arndt said he met with FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez in Austin to discuss the project and then again in Washington, D.C., as part of SA’s annual trip to DC by business and government leaders. . High-ranking FTA officials visited San Antonio to see the ART project recently and encouraged VIA to seek more federal funding.
“We drove them along the corridor, and they looked around and said, ‘This is exactly the kind of area where we want to invest in transit,'” Arndt said.
The Federal Transit Administration did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday afternoon.
VIA is exploring several options for providing local funding, but Arndt declined to provide details. Arndt said San Antonio has already maxed out the sales tax used to pay for the northwest portion of the project.
City officials are trying to work quickly ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
“You might have a change in administration that might not be as supportive of our types of projects as the current one is,” Arndt said.
Without any additional funding, Ardnt said VIA’s financial plan indicated the east-west line would not open until 2055.