A Plan to End VIA’s Pauper Status

As most of you know, VIA Metropolitan Transit is embarrassingly underfunded.

For riders, that means a lot of waiting around for too few buses and too many transfers. Thousands of their hours are wasted every day at VIA’s 7,193 bus stops.

That’s because VIA gets a sliver of the sales-tax dollars that public transit agencies in other major Texas cities receive – one-half cent for every $100 compared to a full cent in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston.VIA

Here’s how the tax works: the state of Texas imposes a sales tax of 6.25 percent; on top of that, cities, counties, transit authorities, and special-purpose districts are allowed to tack on another 2 percent.

Unfortunately, we are maxed out. The city of San Antonio receives 1 percent of the sales tax, VIA gets 0.5 percent, and the remaining 0.5 percent is split between aquifer protection and linear parks (0.125 percent), pre-kindergarten education (0.125 percent), and the Advanced Transportation District (0.25 percent) – for a grand total of 2 percent. The ATD sends half of its tax revenue to VIA, which is better than nothing, but not by a huge amount.

To raise VIA’s funding to where it should be, we’d need to let the other voter-approved uses expire and ask voters to OK giving VIA the combined 0.5 percent.

Which won’t happen because it would be a real pain in the ass. Pre-K, the ATD, and aquifer protection have ardent supporters who would raise hell. Besides, voters approved each of these initiatives. And I’m pretty sure zero is the number of officials willing to stand up and say, “Pre-K for SA is great, but mass transit is actually closer to a core function of local government.”

By the way, don’t even think about touching the city of San Antonio’s 1-percent slice.

But, look, we’re not about hard choices at SanAntoniomizer. We want you to be happy, your brow unclouded. So we’ve come up with a work-around.

Here’s what we’re proposing: Disguise VIA as something that we really care about and in which we are willing to invest significant public dollars.

The following are the steps VIA’s board of trustees need to take:

  1. Hire an expensive brand consultant to come up with a new name that totally obscures what the bus agency does. Maybe something like VeloCity or, even better, VeloCity Human. By making the name incomprehensible, you’ll give people the impression that this is a company on the move, with big, undefined changes afoot. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even move its headquarters.
  2. Work out a deal with developers to build a breathtaking new office building at the Pearl, preferably a structure so green the walls will actually be fashioned out of native grasses. Think about it. How many millions of public dollars, through incentives and bond financing, have flowed into the Broadway corridor over the Decade of Downtown so far? It’s VeloCity Human’s turn to scoop up some of that beautiful money with a Pearl HQ.
  3. This is probably the most crucial step: VeloCity Human’s trustees must convince one of the suburban cities in which the company operates – say, Elmendorf – to put together a relocation package for its headquarters, which is currently located on San Pedro Avenue. Suddenly it’s a competition! What are you going to offer, San Antonio and Bexar County peeps? After all, you surely don’t want to be the ones accused of “losing” VeloCity Human to Elmendorf. It’s true that such a move would have no impact on the regional economy. Economics aren’t that parochial. But good news for VeloCity Human – relocation politics are.
  4. Work out a hefty package of giveaways to secure your move to the Pearl. This will be tricky. Because VeloCity Human is a public-owned entity, it doesn’t pay property taxes. So no tax abatements or tax rebates. Instead, the company will have to negotiate a bunch of big grants and zero-interest loans.
  5. Once the deal is done, and VeloCity Human has settled into its new home at the Pearl, trustees will be in an excellent position to go to the city and county, and say: “As you know, what we do is very important to the community. It must be because we’re headquartered at the Pearl, and you spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars to help us get there. Also, as our new name hints, we’re changing our business model. Just consider these nine words: Technology platform, multi-modal things, disruption, millennials, and driverless stuff. We’ll leave these duffel bags on your desk. Please pack them with tax revenue, and we’ll drop by tomorrow to pick them up. Thank you.”

There’s no reason to think this scheme won’t work. It’s certainly more compelling than blathering on about making life better for people who have to take buses to get to work, school, or the doctor.

A Gallon to Kill For

You are not in good shape, pal.

You’ve been trolling for gasoline for your Jeep Patriot for five days without luck. You poured the last of your lawnmower gas into your tank this morning. You remember stirring some kind of oil into the lawnmower gas because that’s what Snapper ordered you to do in the owner’s manual. At first, you try not to think about what kind of mischief the oily gas is getting into in the engine. Then you realize you don’t really care as long as the Patriot starts.

If worse comes to worse — and worse is already within earshot of worse — you have a plan to beat your neighbor to death with a baseball bat, siphon the gas from his huge SUV, and steal his lawnmower gas. It’s a riding lawnmower. Yes, of course you know you could siphon his SUV gas and steal his lawnmower gas in the middle of the night without killing him. But the plan as originally envisioned just feels right. It would be both a statement and a way to get the gas you need to go on living the life you’re entitled to.

What’s the statement?

It is this: You would rather kill your neighbor with a baseball bat than ride a VIA bus.

VIA Buses of Doom

The public service announcement comes on. Imagine it as a voice actress taking the seat next to you, and saying: “Thank you for choosing to ride VIA.”

That’s nice, you think. Plain-vanilla nice, but OK. What the voice actress lacks in professional gloss, she makes up for in politeness.

After a few minutes of silence between the two of you, the voice actress speaks again.

“For your safety and the safety of the VIA (bus) operator, cameras are installed on all VIA vehicles.” She also informs you ­­­plainclothes cops could be hiding in plain sight among the other riders, just waiting for the first little tremor of trouble.

The VIA Primo Mayhemobile

She apparently wants to put you at ease. But you were already at ease. You were reading Tweets on your phone and eavesdropping on the lady behind you with all the drama about that asshole. Now, after this second PSA, you’re like, Huh?

You look up. Yup. There are the cameras. You look around for the cop, and catch the eye of the exhausted nurse in maroon scrubs. Probably not, you think.

A few more minutes pass, and you’ve gone back to the drama the lady’s narrating behind you. That guy really is an asshole. No joke. Why did she put up with that for so long?

Then the voice actress speaks again.

“Assaulting a VIA operator is a crime that can be prosecuted as a felony.”

Wow – there are so many things wrong with that sentence. But what bothers you most is its pointlessness. Its only discernible purpose is to spook anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver. Because of course anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver would stop at the sound of a cool, even voice explaining the legal consequences.

The message is clearly not intended to make anybody else on the bus feel safer.

You’re riding to work on the VIA Primo, the bus rapid transit line along Fredericksburg Road between the Medical Center and downtown. Started in December 2012, the service was supposed to attract people like you – professionals who’d never thought about riding the bus before. Part of the big BRT idea was to get these people to finally experience mass transit, to see that it’s not bad, and then who knows – maybe light rail and increased spending on our bus system wouldn’t seem so far-fetched. To reel them in, VIA offered Wi-Fi, more space than you’d get on a regular bus, frequent service, and speedy rides. Some of the seats – two rows facing each other near the midsection of the long, “articulated” (or “bendy”) buses – are even elevated so that they look kind of like thrones. You might be wrong about that, but maybe not.

None of that worked. You’re usually either the only one on the Primo who looks like they’re going to work in a downtown office, or you’re one of only two or three.

But VIA officials aren’t easily rattled. They won’t let failure stop them from doing the same thing elsewhere in San Antonio. At this very moment, they’re planning new bus rapid transit routes around the city.

Undoubtedly, this new service will launch with a beefy advertising and marketing budget, and therefore a lot of fanfare. That’ll initially attract a small crowd of higher-income, higher-education commuters.

But you really want to be there the first time the voice actress of doom sits next to them and hints that mayhem has a yearly bus pass and a lot of time on its hands. She might as well tell them the VIA bus fleet runs on compressed natural gas and the blood of drivers and innocent bystanders.

With their darkest fears about public transportation reinforced, you suspect the professionals will simply say nope and end the experiment. You have little faith in your tribe.

And you? You’re getting back into the habit of riding the bus because 1) you have a new job at City Hall, and it’s right on the Primo’s route; 2) you don’t want to pay a bunch of money for monthly parking; and 3) you tend to forget about your parking meters and therefore get a lot of tickets. You’re trying to reduce your financial footprint.

But those aren’t the reasons you originally took the bus. You started riding the Primo several years ago because you wanted to be a pioneer, one of the early-adopter professionals of San Antonio’s 2,000-year-old bus system. In other words, you didn’t want to be one of those cunt creatives prattling on about how San Antonio needs a real transit system, but who never sets foot on a bus.

You also had a gauzy notion that people from different classes should regularly share the same space, and sometimes make small talk, as they’re doing something as mundane as getting to work, home, the store, or wherever. You believe that without mass transit, whether it’s buses and trains or just buses, San Antonio will continue to bump along as the most economically segregated city in the country.

This is the kind of moment you believe is necessary for San Antonio to get better: Earlier this week, you watched a skinny guy in his forties lug two hampers of clean, folded laundry onto and off the bus. You remembered when you couldn’t afford a washer and dryer, and how much that sucked.

It’s only later that it occurs to you that you could’ve offered to help him with the hampers.

It’s even later than that when you wonder what the skinny guy thinks when the voice actress of doom speaks to him.

Well, it’s a start.