VIA Metropolitan Transit prepares San Antonio for a multimodal future

Hybrid vehicles in the current VIA bus system are well used. Photos courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit

By Keith Parker

It’s been a little over a year since I took over as president and CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio. In that time we have made good progress toward making this transit agency a multimodal system.

The current bus system is very well used. With nearly 50 million boardings per year, our VIA bus system provides more trips than many multimodal systems. The 2,000 VIA employees bring a level of professionalism and commitment to customer service that compares favorably to the most notable transit agencies in the country.

As the seventh largest city in the United States, San Antonio has the distinction of being the biggest metropolitan area served by a bus-only transit system. We are looking to change that with the development of the Long Range Comprehensive Transportation Plan.

This plan will provide a transportation vision for the community as a whole, outlining a network of integrated, high-capacity transit corridors with a variety of possible modes. The Long Range Plan will guide VIA in developing these future corridors, helping to position the agency to become truly regional and multimodal.

It was just after I came onboard at VIA that we kicked off an intensive public outreach effort connected with the Long Range Plan. Called “SmartWaySA,” this outreach began in September 2009 with a series of workshops designed to introduce the concept of the plan and gather input from citizens. In November we held a series of meetings across the city to collect additional input, and another set of workshops followed in June of this year. Now VIA is in the final development stages of the plan. Once the Long Range Plan is complete, we will have a guide for a new transit system that incorporates different transit technologies selected to serve the unique needs of each corridor.

But we’re not waiting for the completion of the plan to move forward with new modes of transit. In fact, when I began my tenure, I was pleased to see that VIA had already done extensive work on bringing bus rapid transit to San Antonio.

The plans for bus rapid transit, or BRT, call for connecting the area’s two largest employment centers—the central business district and the South Texas Medical Center—by means of enhanced bus services along a busy state right-of-way called Fredericksburg Road. This line will provide superior levels of service on VIA’s busiest transit corridor, and it will also connect to the main campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio with the university’s downtown campus. This BRT line will improve the mobility of workers, patients, students, and other citizens through the use of stylized vehicles and station-boarding along the corridor. Everything is on schedule for completion and start of service in 2012.

San Antonio is about to shed its distinction of being the nation’s largest metropolitan area served by a bus-only transit system.

In addition to the special buses we will secure for the BRT line, we are purchasing innovative revenue vehicles to improve the ride for our passengers while also enhancing the livability and sustainability of our region. We are accomplishing this through the use of alternative power sources for our new buses.

In May of this year we introduced the first transit buses in San Antonio that run on compressed natural gas (CNG). In August we introduced several dozen new diesel-electric hybrid buses. These vehicles operate on VIA express routes to help daily commuters reduce the city’s overall fuel consumption while easing traffic congestion and cutting back on fleet emissions. Riders on these buses also enjoy extra amenities not normally seen on transit buses, such as reclining seats, overhead storage, individual lighting and free wireless Internet access.

In addition to the CNG and hybrid buses, VIA is preparing to take delivery of three new vehicles powered by electricity from on-board batteries. These buses will be completely free of emissions, and will operate in our busy downtown area.

The electric buses will be recharged at a transit station at the Alamodome, and the batteries will soak up electricity produced either by solar panels installed as part of the project or by wind turbines in West Texas as part of the Windtricity program implemented by CPS Energy, San Antonio’s energy utility.

These projects demonstrate our commitment to innovation and sustainability. I’m excited to be a part of these developments. VIA is a transit agency to watch in the next few years, and San Antonio will definitely be the better for our further growth.

Keith Parker serves as President and CEO, VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio, TX.