A slightly leaner $247.5 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year, approved unanimously this week by the VIA Metropolitan Transit board, is not as draconian as once feared and might forecast its scope of spending for the next three to four years, agency CEO Jeff Arndt said.

The funding expected for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 is just $1.9 million less than the current budget, and reflects the COVID-related decreases in ridership and city sales tax revenue, which partially funds the countywide bus service.

“There is still huge uncertainty,” Arndt said. “But I’m hoping the uncertainty we’ve had over the last six months is far worse than what we have moving forward.”

The new budget includes no fare increases and no active staff reductions. It changes some service levels to match customer demand and social distancing protocols, and adds new mobility-on-demand service in the Northwest zone and Sandy Oaks area.

Among the highlights are 139 new VIAtrans buses, which serve the elderly and those with disabilities. They will be replacing the current fleet, Arndt said.

About $4.9 million was saved in the current budget by maintaining bus service at what VIA calls an “essential” level — mainly with reduced frequency and the elimination of some routes.

Arndt said about 80 percent of the budget will go toward services, including buying new buses, fuel and maintenance.

In addition to the operating budget, the VIA board unanimously approved an $84.9 million capital spending budget and a five-year $173.7 million capital spending plan for various construction projects, including a $33 million paratransit facility that will serve as the headquarters for VIAtrans.

In 2017, VIA purchased the former Graham Central Station nightclub at 4902 Fredericksburg Road for $8.1 million to serve as the new VIAtrans facility. The site is 11 acres, with a 100,000-square-foot building and another about 10,000 square feet.

Since about March, VIA has lost nearly half its riders due to job cuts throughout the city and riders’ concerns about contagion, though masks and social distancing are required and physical contact with drivers is avoided. Bus fees were waived in March, then reinstated June 1.

VIA’s much-publicized plan for more frequent buses on dedicated lanes, known as VIA Reimagined, is not in the budget. It had to be shelved when the pandemic made a push for a 1/8-cent share of the city sales tax impractical, and the transit agency then tangled with city leaders who decided the tax was needed for economic recovery instead.

The tax for years has funded aquiifer protection and linear parks, and voters will decide a pair of proposals Nov. 3 that would switch it to the city’s recovery purposes, then to VIA in 2026.

On ExpressNews.com: San Antonio City Council approves 10-year funding plan for Edwards Aquifer protection program

VIA Reimagined’s renamed successor, Keep SA Moving, has some of its short term goals funded next year, along with a $1.2 million line item for marketing and educating the public about what it is, and will require voter approval for other components, an agency spokeswoman said.

The Keep SA Moving website is long on the language of goals — “connecting people to jobs,” equity, “implement service innovations” — but the nuts and bolts, including what the transportation world calls bus rapid transit or advanced rapid transit, can be found under a tab labeled “resources.”

It identifies goals for the next one to four years, including keeping VIAtrans at current levels, and long-term priorities over five to 10 years. The showpiece is a fleet of innovative, usually longer buses, that will travel in dedicated lanes on some of the city’s most crowded roads.

The goal is to have them arrive so frequently — about every seven to 10 minutes — that riders won’t need schedules.

Bruce Selcraig is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Bruce, become a subscriber. [email protected]