Bus route stops for proposed San Antonio-Austin run revealed

Local leaders hope a new public bus route between San Antonio and Austin — with stops in New Braunfels and San Marcos — will get drivers off Interstate 35.

“I think it’s time,” said Diane Rath, executive director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments. “We’re really being irresponsible if we don’t figure out how to relieve the congestion between these two metros.”

If organizers can get the funding together, it could be up and running in just two months, Rath said.

Rath and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros presented a plan for the proposed bus line to a City Council committee Monday. They’re asking for money from the city of San Antonio and other local governments whose leaders would need to get on board.

The bus would run Monday through Friday, starting at 6:45 am and ending at 9:45 pm, during a two-year pilot program.

It would carry travelers from San Antonio’s Northeast Side at the Randolph Park and Ride to downtown Austin, stopping at the Austin Convention Center and either the CARTS Eastside Bus Plaza or the Southpark Meadows station. The buses would run both ways, with 20 one-way trips per day.

The initial cost for riders would be $10 per day.

“It’s absolutely one of the most important dimensions of how our city is going to grow,” Cisneros said.

He believes the expansive growth in San Antonio and along I-35 in Hays County will lead to a central Texas “metroplex” of a combined San Antonio-Austin region. A better connection to Austin would be good for San Antonio’s economy, Cisneros said.

Both Amtrak and Megabus offer routes between San Antonio and Austin, but there’s no public transit option, Rath said. Amtrak and Megabus typically cost more than $10 per day and see longer travel times than the drive on I-35.

Rath and Cisneros expect the bus route would take about 90 minutes, similar to the drive time. And if expanded in the future, they hope travel time will shorten even more.

That’s because the proposed bus could eventually look like the Advanced Rapid Transit, or ART, that VIA is working to create in San Antonio along San Pedro Avenue. Such systems feature more buses running at shorter intervals on dedicated lanes — allowing them to bypass car traffic.

Right now, there are no plans for the buses to get a dedicated lane on I-35. Officials hope the state Legislature may grant buses that use if the pilot proves successful.

The two-year pilot program would cost about $1.5 million.

The upside, Rath said, is that officials don’t need to purchase the buses. The Capital Area Rural Transportation System, or CARTS, would donate two coach buses to the route. The CARTS serves Hays, Travis and other nearby rural counties.

The rest of the funding would come from participating cities and counties based on their population, Rath said. That would make the city of San Antonio, with the largest population, responsible for the highest contribution: $581,000. The ask from Bexar County would be $23,000.

Officials would ask for $389,000 from the city of Austin and $13,000 from Travis County. Hays County would be asked to chip in about $70,000 and Comal County about $29,000.

City leaders in New Braunfels and San Marcos are interested, Rath said. But they may not want to be the first to put money up for the project. Officials also hope to target grants, like those from the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, that could take the cost burden off participating governments.

“We don’t have commitments at this point, but we’re before a number of bodies,” Cisneros said.

City Council weighs in on access, cost

San Antonio City Council members expressed excitement about a public bus route but had reservations about who in San Antonio could access it.

Since the Randolph Park and Ride sits on the Northeast Side, San Antonio residents from the South and West sides would have trouble getting there, said Melissa Cabello Havrda, who represents the Far West Side in District 6 and chairs the Transportation and Mobility Committee.

She’d like to see an extension to Port SA or Brooks on the South Side to cover more ground in the future.

Councilwoman Teri Castillo, who represents much of the near West Side in District 5, agreed with Cabello Havrda. She asked Rath if they considered the Frank Madla Transit Center on the Southwest Side.

Officials chose Randolph because it offers VIA bus connections to other parts of San Antonio, Rath said, and is undergoing renovations now. They looked at extending the bus route to US 281 or to the University of Texas at San Antonio on the Northwest Side. But that would mean a bus trip longer than 90 minutes.

Cisneros said he understands the desire to connect with more of San Antonio, but the route’s travel time would just end up too long.

“This is a tiny, tiny step in where we need to be going,” he said.

Councilman Clayton Perry, who represents District 10 on the Northeast Side, worried about the sustainability of funding a bus route in the future.

The $10 day pass would gain people’s interest, Rath said. But it “doesn’t even begin to touch” the cost of keeping it up and running long-term. They have yet to estimate how much money that may take.

District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, representing part of the Northwest Side, said that once a pilot program is rolling they can develop a long-term plan.

“You’re never going to recover the full costs from there, and that’s OK because that’s what public transit is,” Sandoval said.

Cabello Havrda was concerned about the city’s share. The county overlaps with the city and could contribute more money instead of the city taking on the bulk of the cost, she said. She wants to work out details with the county.

Still, most everyone agreed that some public transportation between San Antonio and Austin is missing and necessary.

“I am absolutely thrilled about this proposal,” Sandoval said. “I think it is needed for safety purposes, for convenience purposes. And it’s needed sooner rather than later.”