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Council Adopts Ambitious Transit Plan

By Leslee Kulba- At the last meeting of Asheville City Council, transit activists spoke about how inadequate bus service has been. Tales were told of buses running late so often, nobody would be able to keep a job if they were to rely on them. One man spoke of fast-food workers frequently sleeping in the bushes because by the time they get off work, the buses have stopped running.

The comments preceded council’s unanimous adoption of a new transit plan. Those who spoke felt their concerns had been heard and integrated into the plan as much as was feasible. Unlike other plans in recent history, the one developed by consulting firm Tindale Oliver focused less on engineering people who can afford cars into transit, and more on making transit work for those who need it.

The new plan, to be phased-in over the next few years, advocates for extending the hours transit operates until 10pm six days a week and until 8pm on Sunday, and increasing the frequency of bus trips on heavily-used routes. To make this possible in the near term, the planners called for the elimination of service on the city’s most under-utilized and unconnected routes.

Another big change is the addition of crosstown routes.

The planners had heard a lot of people saying transfers were a deterrent to ridership. The crosstown routes will allow them to sit in the same seat when going from one end of the city to another.

While those presenting the plan admitted it was ambitious, they set a target of almost doubling the number of service hours handled by city buses, requiring the city to increase its fleet from 19 to 36 buses by 2029. The expansion will also necessitate the expansion of the department’s operating and capital budgets.

The price of a new bus is expected to run around $860,000 in 2020 and increase about 15% over the next 10 years. A new garage, for storage and maintenance, would also be needed. The PowerPoint presentation prepared for the meeting recommended locating the new facility on 8-10 acres, the size of lot the same slide said was needed for a fleet of 80 vehicles.

The facility would be built between 2020 and 2022, with an estimated cost of $25,090,000; but the planners expected the city could get grants, bringing its costs down to an $18,000 local match for planning and a $10 million match for construction.

Another transit study was recommended for 2024.

On another slide from the presentation, Tindale Oliver showed the city’s transit operations and maintenance costs increasing by 2029 to $21,304,755, compared to the current year’s budget estimate of $8,165,718. Adding in staffing and new bus purchases, the budget would be between $23,671,724 and $24,016,522.

Asheville’s Transit Planning Manager Elias Mathes said if the plans prove too ambitious, the city could, for example, push back deadlines or substitute a parking lot with charging stations until financing is available for a new garage. The recommended buildouts are already incorporated into the city’s capital improvement plan; leadership just has to find a way to fund them.

City Manager Cathy Ball said staff was “eyeing” funds from Mission Health’s new Dogwood Health Trust. She thought transportation and health were linked sufficiently to justify a disbursement, the first grant cycle being in 2020. Increasing fares might be another option. Asheville’s bus fares are low compared to those of comparable cities, but demand for fare-free transit runs high in Asheville.

No mention was made of the last time the city tried going fare-free. With fares zeroed out for three months, people employed in the department were seeking out members of the press to anonymously tell horror stories of wear and tear on the buses. Some described what sounded like a three-month drunken party.

To prevent that, the planners proposed running a fare-free pilot just on weekends next summer. Mathes was concerned going fare-free could overburden the system, and he did not want people needing to get to work or doctor appointments stranded at bus stops. He said it would be a good idea to have a standby vehicle in the event a bus gets full. The cost of replacing a broken-down bus or rebuilding faith if schedules slip again could “blow up” everything else the planners envisioned.

In what sounded like a steering-committee talking point, Mayor Esther Manheimer asked Mathes about changes in transit subsidies instigated by the state legislature. Mathes wasn’t up-to-speed, so Manheimer took the lead.

She said the city’s transit subsidy had decreased $250,000 last year, as statewide transit cuts totaled $30 million. Similar decreases are expected for the near future. Manheimer said the reduction was paired as an either-or against bridge maintenance.

What’s more, there was no opportunity for opposing viewpoints to be heard, because the budget had been passed without committee hearings.

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