O'Toole: Alamo city transit agency's anti-car gimmicks demonstrates its growing irrelevance

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VIA fails to see its growing irrelevance
Randal O’Toole
For the Express-News
August 28, 2016

VIA transit officials are seeking to raise local taxes to build exclusive bus lanes, and possibly light rail, in major corridors throughout San Antonio. This sounds a lot like the light-rail tax that voters defeated and the ATD tax that voters approved but hasn’t delivered the advanced transportation or roads that were promised.

What VIA fails to see — or hopes taxpayers won’t see — is that transit is not only irrelevant to most San Antonians today, it will be even more irrelevant in the years ahead.

VIA’s Vision 2040 plan notes that San Antonio’s population may grow 80 percent by 2040, which means that the sales tax revenues that provide VIA with most of its funding will also grow by at least 80 percent. But VIA wants more so it can build its own network of transit routes and traffic signals to give its buses (and rail cars) priority over everyone else at intersections.

But before taxpayers invest millions or even billions in a system like this, we must understand that San Antonio transit carries less than 1 percent of the region’s motorized passenger travel (and virtually none of its freight). Census data indicate that just 2.7 percent of the region’s commuters take transit to work. Surprisingly, only about a third of workers who live in households without cars take transit to work — showing that transit doesn’t even work for most people without cars.

VIA brags that it carries “42 million trips a year,” which sounds impressive, but it isn’t. San Antonio streets and highways carried 26.2 billion passenger miles of travel compared to VIA’s 210 million passenger miles. Taxpayers could eliminate VIA tomorrow and no one would notice the slightest change in traffic congestion.

Exclusive busways (or rail lines) might give a few people an expensive alternative to driving in traffic, but they will make congestion worse for everyone else. This is especially true if they take lanes now used by general traffic, but even if they build new lanes, giving buses or trains priority at traffic signals would increase delays for both cross traffic and traffic parallel to the transit line. With transit carrying less than 1 percent of travelers, it makes no sense to make congestion worse for the other 99 percent.

Federal Transit Administration data indicate that VIA bus fares per passenger mile in 2014 were a third less than the national average and cover just 15 percent of operating costs, while San Antonio taxpayers pay most of the rest. Despite low fares, VIA buses are almost 20 percent emptier than the national average, carrying fewer than nine people on average at any given time during the day.

Because its buses are so empty, VIA is not as green as its boosters claim. Per passenger mile, VIA buses in 2014 consumed far more energy and emitted far more greenhouse gases than the average transit bus nationwide, which in turn used more energy and emitted more greenhouse gases than the average automobile.

Things are only going to get worse for VIA as shared, self-driving cars are likely to soon replace transit in most cities. Ford recently announced it would have fleets of completely self-driving cars in American cities by 2021. Even if that is optimistic, it is clear that self-driving cars will revolutionize urban travel long before 2040.

Per passenger mile, VIA spends almost four times as much moving people on buses as Americans spend on driving. When shared, self-driving vehicles can take people door-to-door for less than the cost of public transit, why subsidize transit? And if transit’s future is uncertain, why should San Antonians pay more taxes to build expensive transit infrastructure that 1 percent will use?

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute.