AUSTIN (KXAN) — San Antonio resident Diane Rath spent 12 years commuting to and from Austin for work, well acquainted with Interstate 35 and the congestion that comes with it. As both cities’ populations continue to explode, she’s proposing going back to basics to ease traffic woes: a bus route connecting San Antonio and Austin.
Rath serves as executive director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments, an organization that is spearheading calls for a new bus route connecting the two cities. For the past year, AACOG has been developing a preliminary two-year pilot program for a bus route that would begin in both Austin and San Antonio, with stops in San Marcos and New Braunfels along the way.
While San Antonio and Austin are currently classified as two separate metropolitan areas, the burgeoning populations along the I-35 corridor paired with the cities’ proximity means commuting between the two regions isn’t a foreign concept, Rath said.
“It is such a critical component to realize that Austin and San Antonio are no longer two distinct areas,” she said. “We really are becoming one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the entire country.”
What would a San Antonio-Austin bus route look like?
Under the current proposal, the bus route would begin at the Randolph Park & Ride in San Antonio, before stopping west of I-35 in New Braunfels. The bus would then head to San Marcos for two stops — one at the CARTS San Marcos Station, with the second at Texas State University — before heading to the CapMetro Southpark Meadows Park & Ride, ending in downtown Austin at the Austin Convention Center.
A bus route, beginning in Austin, would simultaneously replicate that same route back to San Antonio. Early drafts for the proposed route outline a Monday through Friday schedule, with 20 one-way trips running from 6:45 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
While weekend trips haven’t been factored into the preliminary pilot concept, Rath said there could be opportunities for special weekend event trips, if the program is greenlit.
“Particularly when there’s a UT football game or when the Spurs are playing a really high-profile game, then you could do special runs in between,” she said.
When it comes to commuting between the two major cities, Rath admitted a high occupancy vehicle or HOV lane would be most ideal and could be a long-term solution the Texas Department of Transportation implements into its I-35 construction projects. She envisions something akin to VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Advanced Rapid Transit project in San Antonio.
As an interim solution, AACOG is looking into legislation proposals for use of the shoulder for public transit, which has been used in other cities across the country. That would require permission from the Texas Legislature for use, she said.
How much would bus passes and the overall program cost?
Each one-way trip would take about 90 minutes, with a one-day pass proposed at $10 for riders. While that cost would likely increase past the pilot phase, she said a lower cost entry point could draw prospective riders in to try the program to test its reliability and efficiency.
“That’s an expensive route. I did it,” she said. “It’s an expensive route to commute back and forth, so [day pass options] are very attractive.”
AACOG is in discussions with VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, CapMetro, Alamo Rural Transit, Capital Rural Transit, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Rath said. The Capital Area Rural Transportation system would donate two coach buses for the pilot, if approved.
AACOG has identified a federal grant it’ll be applying for in October through the bipartisan infrastructure law, and the group will also be applying for funding from both AAMPO and CAMPO when each organization releases their call for projects. Under this current timeline, she expects grant funding could become available as early as next year, with the program ready to launch a few months after those funding dollars have been secured.
AACOG has estimated the two-year pilot program would cost $1.5 million. Rath said the organization has discussed the proposal with officials from San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos and Austin, along with leadership in Bexar, Travis, Hays and Comal counties.
If federal, AAMPO and CAMPO funding is secured, the remainder of funding would be divvied up between participating cities and counties, with their individual financial contributions based on population sizes. The cities of San Antonio and Austin would pay the largest portions given their populations.
What are the next steps for the proposal?
Top of priority on AACOG’s horizon is applying for grants this fall, as well as looking into possible dollars from TxDOT to kickstart the pilot. With the Texas Legislature reconvening in January, they are looking into possible proposals at the state level for dedicated resources.
“We’re pursuing every opportunity we can see,” Rath said. “We think our communities deserve it, and they need it. We will be hindered in our ability to respond to needs, and our ability to continue to thrive economically, if we can’t have a solution to this transportation issue.”