Tuesday, March 28, 2017

City development project for New Belgium completed at 300% over budget but come to the ribbon cutting!

The City has been working hard on the French Broad River West Greenway and Craven Street Improvements but here are some facts you probably didn’t know or forgot:
For New Belgium
  • The Greenway and the Craven Street Improvements were part of the bargaining deal (economic incentive package) in getting New Belgium to come to Asheville and is located on or near their property.  The City agreed to pay for and put in a partial greenway and make improvements to Craven Street (where New Belgium is located).  It’s part of the Memorandum of Understanding and Economic Development Agreement and allows for cash grants to New Belgium of at least $2.1 million.
From June 12, 2012 City Council Minutes:
“Public Infrastructure: In addition to the economic development incentive agreement, the City has agreed to make some improvements to the infrastructure in the area of New Belgium’s proposed Craven Street location, and on the property itself. The improvements include widening Craven Street and improving some of the intersections approaching the proposed location of the brewery, replacing and enlarging waterlines, and constructing and improving some storm-water facilities. The improvements also include construction of a greenway on New Belgium’s property.”
300% over original estimates
So far, this incentive package is 300% over the original estimate, costing taxpayers an additional $5 to $6 million.
  •  The greenway was supposed to cost around $400,000 but later it became $1 million.
  • The Craven Street Improvements portion was supposed to cost $1.9 million but in 2014, that was raised to $7.7 million.  Source: June 24, 2014 City Council Minutes (see below for documents)
Let’s hope other Asheville City development projects are not as over budget as this one has been.
Either way, the Asheville Riverfront Development Office sent out a notice of celebration – a ribbon cutting of this momentous event.  We only hope that New Belgium is providing free food and beer since the taxpayers have already paid for it:
March 28, 2017 Email Announcement from the Riverfront Development Office of City of Asheville:
“The French Broad River West Greenway and Craven Street Improvements projects are complete. Now that the weather is a bit warmer we are excited to celebrate this milestone with you.
Please join us on Friday, April 21, 2017 at 3:30pm for a self-guided greenway tour, followed by a ribbon cutting at 4:30pm. (See attached invitation and map).
The ribbon cutting will take place on the FBR West Pedestrian Bridge below the New Belgium Brewing Liquid Center. We hope your schedule will allow for you to attend. Please share this with whomever you think may also be interested.
We look forward to celebrating with you!”
(PS… Donations are probably accepted and needed)
Original Craven Street estimate:

Craven Final Project Cost


Monday, March 20, 2017

Asheville Political Theatre

Programs!  Get your programs here!
The AU guide to who’s playing what part on City Council this election year
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts … “
--  Shakespeare, As You Like It
A governing body is like the cast of characters in a play.  Well, actually it’s more like a repertory company where the same group of people takes on different roles as new scenarios are presented.  

Nowhere is that more evident than right here in Asheville.   Just when you think you’ve got the cast straight in your mind, along comes election year with a whole new script, and all the parts get shuffled, or new ones get invented.

So as a public service AU presents herewith a rundown of who’s playing what role on city council as we approach this year's elections:

Mayor Esther Manheimer (Head of State, now Nanny-in-Chief) is seeking her second term in November.  By day Manheimer is a mild-mannered land use attorney for a great metropolitan law firm (Van Winkle, which acts as both a receiver and a supplier of city personnel), but by evening, at least on alternate Tuesdays, she presides over Asheville City Council.
In an oddly snippy editorial cartoon, Asheville’s frothingly liberal Mountain Xpress depicted Manheimer as a ship’s figurehead.  But in recent months the mayor has showcased her leadership capabilities.  Why, the week following the national election she issued a resounding anti-hate speech statement.  And just last week, she slapped the wrist of City Councilman Cecil Bothwell when he disparaged, in colorful language, one of the city’s myriad civilian commissions.  So there.

The mayor energetically stumped for Asheville’s $74 million bond package, but had to backpedal at one point when challenged about the amount of per capita debt Asheville citizens would carry if the bonds were passed.  Her Honor said she was fed some stale information, which led some to wonder just how tightly run the Good Ship Asheville is.

Cecil Mugshot
Councilman Cecil Bothwell (Loose Cannon, now Elder Statesman).  

Speaking of tight, City Council’s gadfly-in-residence, who is seeking a third term, weathered a DWI/no license tag rap in 2014. In fact, the grace with which he accepted his penalties was seen in some quarters as the most mature performance that Bothwell, at 66 the council’s senior member, has so far given in office.

Wikipedia says Bothwell is “an American politician, writer, artist, musician and builder.”  He was elected to Council in 2009, having quashed objections based on the North Carolina Constitution’s prohibition from allowing atheists to hold elected office.  Since then his dedication to his own progressive agenda, rather than to Council’s official party line, has endeared him to a hard core of ageing liberals and professed free thinkers who see his contrarianism as a breath of fresh air.

Fresh is right.  He told former fellow council member Marc Hunt, “You make me want to puke …  I am so totally embarrassed that I endorsed you.”  And in the same vein, just last week he  lambasted the chairman of the Haywood Street Task Force. A longtime proponent of  turning the Haywood Street “Pit of Despair”into a park,  Bothwell called the commission’s work “a pile of crap” and used other colorful terms that led to the Mayor’s disapproval (see above) and even a prim rebuke from the Asheville Citizen-Times.    

On the other hand Bothwell recently delivered himself of a sonorous, (non-profane) indictment of his fellow councilors for handing too much authority off to commissions in general.  Positioning himself as the only grownup in the room, Bothwell said, “when elected officials hand off the hard decisions to task forces and other unelected bodies, we need to be very, very aware and alert as to how those bodies are conducted.”

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler (Uber-committeewoman, now Mayoral Handmaiden):  

Wisler, a retired corporate heavyweight (she was formerly the president of  First Alert, Powermate and Eastpak companies and retired as CEO of Coleman, the iconic outdoor equipment maker) came to Asheville in 2006 and got herself elected to council in 2013.  She was nominated by progressive kingpin Gordon Smith.

Last year Mountain Xpress, with polite candor, said: “As a financially secure retiree, Wisler is not only willing to put a lot of time into meetings, community functions and research — she is able. Her colleagues on Council, on the other hand, all balance their official responsibilities with earning a living.”  Though she’s self-employed as a not-for-profit business consultant, Wisler’s days are her own and she spends them serving on five of the city’s six standing committees, two of which she chairs.

The mayor, it’s said, has come to rely increasingly on Wisler’s initiative and financial experience; she has in fact delegated to Wisler certain routine mayoral duties, sometimes with interesting results.  When Wisler stood in for Manheimer at a Council of Independent Business Owners’ meeting last December, she told her audience the city had no definite plans for rejuvenating South Charlotte Street – although $15 million of the city’s $25 million housing bond was publicly earmarked for exactly that.

Ah, well, it’s a learning curve.

Councilman Gordon Smith:  Been here and gone.  

Smith’s announcement that he won’t be seeking a third term took some voters aback but left others saying it’s all part of a master plan  Well, it’s one theory that helps answer the question most asked about the oh-so-clever Smith’s departure, namely: “What’s he up to?”

Smith has consistently leaned the furthest left on a left-leaning city council and has been regarded as its craftiest and most powerful member.  True, he’s slipped up once or twice – as when it was discovered he’d voted to make his brother-in-law the project director of the trouble-plagued Eagle Market Street project.  Even in that case, though, he was covered.  He asked if he should recuse himself but acting city attorney Martha McGlohon told him oh no, that was fine.  (It later came out that McGlohon herself had a vested interest in the matter; the estate of her late husband, Howard McGlohon, was listed as a partner in Eagle Market Development Corporation, but nothing ever came of that revelation.)

However, on the way out, Gordon is kicking Councilman Cecil Bothwell as hard as he can. It appears there has been a contentious relationship between the two of them for quite awhile.  Gordon shared the profanity-laced email on a public Facebook group which led to Mayor Manheimer reprimanding him at last week's Council meeting.  Looks like Gordon wants Cecil out of there, too.

Anyway, to keep the far-left end of the council bench balanced, some say the plan is shoo in a malleable but highly progressive replacement – the precocious Rich Lee is often mentioned – by appointment, without having to go through a tacky old election.

Stay tuned.
* * * * *
Those are the players involved in this year’s election.  These others are still in their supporting roles, pending the next act of the play, in 2019:

Councilwoman Julie Mayfield (Green Energy Cheerleader):   Mayfield is an attorney by training and an environmentalist by inclination.  She came to Asheville from Atlanta where she practiced environmental law and served as Vice President and General Counsel for the environmental group The Georgia Conservancy.  Before running for city council she served on the Multi-Modal Transportation Commission.   

Mayfield’s day job is Co-director of Mountain True (formerly the WNC Alliance), a nonprofit environmental group that receives much of its funding from the hard-left Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.  Understandably, she has rapidly become the public face of city council’s selectively green agenda – what one wag referred to as “spend a million to save a megawatt.”

Councilman Brian Haynes (Who's that?)

Councilman Keith Young  (Minorities Advocate/Time and Space Traveler):  Young, a member of an old and prominent Black Asheville family, spent the least money but garnered the most votes of any candidate in the 2015 elections.  His win was seen by many as a shot in the arm for under-represented minority citizens and also as a possible crack in the foundation of the city’s progressive establishment.

Apparently, however, Young inhabits a sort of twilight zone between a home on Martin Luther King Drive (where he told the Board of Elections he lives) and one in Arden (where he told the bank that holds his mortgage he lives.) If he lives in Asheville he’s been less than truthful with his bank.  If he lives in Arden he can’t be on city council.  Now the BOE is going to convene a hearing to determine which is the case.  Calling Dr. Who.

* * * * *
There you have it: who’s who, at least for the moment.       
Print this out, stick it on your refrigerator, and do try to keep up.
# # # # #

Frack On. Frack Off.

“Fracking should be abolished in the state of North Carolina.”
Debate report (and editorial) of Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team
by Mark Cates
About Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team
On March 3, 2017, the Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team conducted a debate.  The resolution posed was, “Fracking should be abolished in the state of North Carolina.”  Despite the resolution, all sides pretty much agreed, fracking in North Carolina isn’t much of an issue these days.
But let’s slow down and talk about something that is happening in North Carolina.  Turns out, the Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team drills through opponents like a wildcatter drills through shale.  The team has qualified for nationals nearly every year for over two decades and reached number one overall in the Harvard National Cumulative Rankings for the Congressional Debate event. However, as any good wildcatter can tell you, cash is king. The debate team could use an infusion of capital.  You can find out how to help at their booster club.
Back to the fracking debate… Opening rounds
AGAINST FRACKING TEAM
NC Representative John Ager
Asheville City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield spoke in favor of the resolution
VS.
FOR FRACKING TEAMNC Senator Jim Davis
Dr. Richard Wiener, Geologist and Professor, UNCA
Three very important points to note upfront.  
  • First, the audience was one of the most well behaved crowds I have seen at a semi-political forum in Asheville.  My future recommendation would be that we allow the Speech and Debate Team to host all future political forums.  It seems the adults desired to behave themselves in front of the young adults in attendance.  
  • Second, Dr. Wiener is a geologist from UNCA and his expertise made the debate completely unfair. Regardless of one’s position on fracking, we all would have benefited greatly by giving him a projector and the microphone.  
  • Third, Councilwoman Julie Mayfield works for Mountaintrue and she thinks Mountaintrue is great. Now, repeat that over and over again. You can stop in about an hour and a half.
Against Fracking Opening StatementRep. Ager started the debate with a well-prepared opening (and basically closing) statement. 
His main point being that we are closer to renewables being a relevant source of energy today, than we were yesterday.  An extremely difficult point to counter given that today, is always one day ahead of yesterday.  However, Rep. Ager provided no timeline for when the conversion to renewables would take place or how much it would cost. Rep. Ager also opposed the noise, dust, traffic and high volumes of water being used in the industrial process. Some in the crowd appeared to be disturbed by this as they thought he was opposing the New Belgium Brewing Company. It turned out, Ager’s opposition to these issues were only in the realm of fracking.  An audible sigh of relief was heard throughout the crowd.
After his prepared statement in the opening round, Rep. Ager’s contribution to the debate was minimal. He should get credit for being honest and admitting that he was “not an expert” and did “not have the answers”.  The opposition conceded both of these points to Rep. Ager.
Frack job in progress
For fracking: in generalNext up was Sen. Jim Davis. Davis did not work from a prepared statement, but spoke to the benefits of fracking in general.
Davis stated that there really isn’t much fracking occurring in North Carolina and probably won’t be much fracking in the future. North Carolina doesn’t have much oil and natural gas underground. Most of our gas is found above ground in Asheville, near the city hall and Pritchard Park.  It was also apparent in Davis’ opening that he did not get the memo all North Carolinians are going to die due to fracking.  It’s only a guess, but I suspect he did not attend the Asheville protest where that memo was handed out.  However, Davis did say North Carolina has implemented the best fracking regulations in the country.
Later in the debate Mayfield challenged this position, only to then agree with it for the most part.  It became clear that even the best regulations can always be just a little better and if they cannot be just a little better, then we should scrap them completely.
Davis had a consistent theme. Every choice we make comes with risk.  There is risk with gas, coal and oil.  There is risk with renewables. There is risk when we drive our cars.  Humans constantly manage risk and he believes with respect to fracking, the NCGA did an effective job of managing the associated risks. However, once again, it was clear Davis did not receive the memo that Republicans are evil and want to completely destroy the environment we all share.  It was at this point in the debate, I began thinking Davis may be an early adopter of the Asheville catapult-bypass while traveling from Franklin to Raleigh. The Asheville catapult-bypass is a mode of transportation Pete Kaliner (WNC 570 radio host) has suggested the Asheville City Council provide for tourists. It’s intended for tourists using all those city services leaving Asheville continuously broke, but Sen. Davis may be using it also.  I can think of no other way he has missed these important and enlightening memos.
Against fracking: Mountaintrue is greatAfter Davis, was Asheville City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield.  If you haven’t heard, she works at Mountainture and Mountaintrue is great.  
Mayfield said it was a myth that we could not move to cleaner energy… like fracking.  Oh wait, strike that last part. I said that.  Mayfield said, “like renewables”.  Mayfield agreed fracking reduced our carbon footprint and could easily meet current energy demands at a lower cost. While this directly benefits the environment, the poor and middle class, I was left wondering why the poor and middle class selfishly feel the need for that extra money. If they want to save money, they should place their 1.3 million-dollar home in a trust like NC Sen Terry Van Duyn and reduce their tax burdens, or possibly scale down to somewhere around a half million-dollar home like Mayfield. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible for all of us to receive tax dollars for our property like Rep. Ager, or use one’s elected position to grow their company like Buncombe County Chairman Brownie Newman.
Regardless, I was left wondering if those people looking to save a few dollars each month on gas and electric could share Mayfield’s vision for a better tomorrow.
Later, Mayfield agreed North Carolina regulations were pretty good, but what about the methane, methane, methane. (I may have missed some relevant points during this period as all I could hear was Jane Brady and Marsha, Marsha, Marsha. If Mayfield mentioned that she also opposed methane release from landfills, agriculture. cows, pigs, etc., I missed it.)
Mayfield made very poignant appeals to emotion in regards to possible methane release. “What if” the fracking isn’t done properly? “What if” companies choose not to capture it?  Mayfield did clarify that a 2015 regulation required the capturing of methane in all new wells. It was unclear how that point helped her team in the debate though. However, she does make a fair point.  What if companies or individual choose not to follow a law or regulation?  Fortunately, a discussion on immigration did not come up at this point.
Mayfield also made a solid point, when she stated emphatically that we have the technology to capture the methane and use it to our advantage.  Yet again, it was unclear how that point helped her team in the debate.  In addition, Mayfield wanted to know what was in the fracking fluid. She was not referring to the part of the fracking fluid that is 99.5% water and sand. She was talking about the 0.5% that’s similar to what you find at your local car wash.
Speaking to future risk associated with fracking, Mayfield highlighted the problems we now face with Coal Ash cleanup. For some unknown reason, Mayfield failed to mention that it was a problem created by her fellow Democrats and now being addressed by the Republican led NCGA.
Moving on…
And the winner is…Dr. Richard Wiener
Arguably the real winner of the debate was Buncombe County Chairman, Nathan West. West was an original member of the opposing team, but had a last minute “business trip” and UNCA geologist, Dr. Richard Wiener, stood in his place. As noted above, this really made the debate unfair.  Wiener distracted the audience with facts and science and made no appeals to emotion.  He described how well established the fracking process has been over the last 60 years and that while there is some risk, they are well known risks. The risks aren’t truly with the fracking process, but with the concrete casements used. The casements are a risk with all drilling and highly regulated.
Wiener spoke directly to Mayfield’s methane, methane, methane fear and pointed out it’s relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere.  However, Wiener was upstaged by Rep. Ager who jumped back into the debate with reckless abandon. Ager made it clear that when it comes to methane, a farmer like himself, has got the gas. Well, his farm does. Literally. The agriculture production, the cows, the pigs are all sources of methane.  As made clear by Wiener, the methane from fracking isn’t that much in comparison and as made clear by Mayfield herself, we have regulations to capture methane for all new wells.
Often times during the debate, it became unclear which team Ager and Mayfield were arguing for.
But we digressed for a bit – Fracking vs. Renewables
Solar spotlight
Finally, the issue of “when” renewables would be ready to take over as our main source of power was addressed.  If we could quickly move to renewables, there would be no reason to frack. Mayfield suggested that we should be spending our money on renewable energy like solar and wind because a plan by a Stanford professor claims the US could move to “clean energy” by 2050. She didn’t exactly recall the plan, but it turns out it’s not so much a plan as a “vision” by Stanford professor, Mark Jacobson. His vision sets “targets”. His original target was 2030, but he has now moved it back to 2050. After viewing his website, I suspect he will keep moving it back as his plan both acknowledges and trivializes a very relevant detail:
Although we focus mainly on energy supply, we acknowledge and indeed emphasize the importance of demand-side energy conservation measures to reduce the requirements and impacts of energy supply.
Without the “demand-side energy conservation measures”, his numbers fail to add up.  However, that’s another article, for another time.
Methane methane methane
Let’s talk about methane some more.  Mayfield made an excellent point that if the frackers captured their methane better, it could be used to power 7 million homes.  Again, this left me confused if she was arguing for or against the fracking resolution.
Offshore wind turbines
Mayfield also stated that we needed offshore wind turbines.  The plan, I mean vision Mayfield mentioned, suggested offshore wind turbines will need to generate 50% of our power in North Carolina by 2050.  Some in the crowd were delighted to hear their beautiful views of the mountains would not be disturbed, despite being such a good area for wind turbines.  North Carolina beach residents were not available to respond to Mayfield’s comment.  It looked as if Councilwoman Mayfield was going to segue into the 2017 German energy law that prevents building new offshore wind turbines due to the high cost of electricity and damage to its power grid, but she did not.
Battery Technology
Another issue brought up in the debate by Rep. Agers was battery technology. Agers thinks there are a lot of good things happening in that field.  Everyone agreed with him, but the issue of whether battery technology actually existed that could efficiently store energy from solar and wind was not discussed for some reason.  We all agreed we like batteries and we all remain hopeful the technology will arrive soon.  Although, it’s unclear how the yet to be named battery technology for storing electricity fits into the 2030/2050 vision as mentioned by Mayfield.  The vision relies heavily on that yet to be named battery technology in order to make their numbers add up.
One audience member zeroed in on Sen. Davis’ point about how there is environmental risk with all forms of energy.  Davis spoke to the well-known issues of solar arrays frying birds and wind turbines slicing and dicing them.  The speaker noted that cellphone towers kill birds and that cats kill even more.  Davis made it clear he was a dog person, but the audience member clung to his point. Should we also ban cats and cellphone towers?  The audience was clearly divided on these issues. It appeared half of the audience was Pro-Dog and the other half Anti-Dog.  The Pro-Dog crowd seemed perfectly fine with banning cats.  With regards to cellphone towers, the picture was less clear.  Many parents seemed okay with the banning of cellphone towers, but it was hard to get a feel from the younger audience members as they hadn’t bothered to look up from their cellphones.
Back to the main point – fracking
While many cats do kill birds, the debate was about abolishing fracking, not banning renewable energy because of the environmental damage it can cause.  Sen. Davis continued on with his core focus during the debate.  There is risk with every path we take in regards to energy, we have to minimize that risk in a thoughtful and responsible manner.
One audience member did appear to be upset that the Republican led NCGA eliminated certain subsidies for solar panels. He stated that many in his neighborhood had installed solar panels, but without the subsidies other neighbors will not be able to do so.  He seemed very happy he was saving $100/month due to his solar panels, but made no mention of whether he was planning on using that extra money to fund his neighbors.  Installing solar panels can be expensive and not everyone has the extra $20,000 to $50,000 to do so.  If everyone with solar panels in his neighborhood pooled their extra $100/month, they could possibly purchase solar panels for their neighbors.  However, he seemed content with placing the burden of those subsidies on the millions of North Carolinians struggling to pay their bills and take care of their families, while he continued living his green dream.

(You can stop saying Mountaintrue now.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Asheville considers lowering property tax rate, but new projects being considered

Decrease the Property Tax Rate?

Yesterday Asheville City held one of three budget work sessions to prepare for the Fiscal Year 2017/18 operating and capital improvements budget.  The big question was whether or not the City would be increasing the property tax rate due to the significant city-wide property revaluation increases of 25% or more that property owners recently received.
As you know, the City approved a $74 million bond last November which the City said would require a property tax increase to pay the debt and principal.

Revenue Neutral

Barbara Whitehorn, the City's Financial Director ($157,000 in salary & benefits), said the City could actually lower the property tax rate to .395 (3.95 cents), meaning at that rate, the city would be "revenue-neutral." Revenue neutral means the City could receive the same amount of money without having to increase taxes and could cover it's annual budget.

The Bond needs 3.5 cents

However, in order to implement the $74 million bond and pay for its debt service, it would require a little over 3.5 cents to be added so then we're back at around 4.25 cent property tax rate.  The City's current tax rate is 4.75 cents (or as most of are used to seeing it, .475) which means the City could still slightly lower the property tax rate... something that has not been done in years.

New Projects

Don't go celebrating yet.  There are new projects that various constituents and council members wish to implement which could both eat up the extra funds and/or require additional tax rate increases either leaving us at our current rate or increasing the tax rate.
These included:
  • Transit Master Plan
  • Energy Innovation Task Force recommendations
  • Downtown Safety Plan
  • Facilities Master Plan
  • Downtown Sanitation Improvement Plan
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield made a lengthy presentation about the Energy Innovation Task Force and their recommendations to spend roughly 1.1 million of which $50,000 would go toward marketing and the rest toward weatherization for low income households. This met with support from Councilman Cecil Bothwell and Councilman Keith Young.

While all of this will go forward to round 2 of the budget work session meetings (next one March 28th and then April 11th) wherein they will discuss specifics of the operating and capital improvement budget respectively, it's not yet decided what the Council will do.  Given their propensity to spend, we're betting these initiatives will go forward.

Oddly, Councilman Gordon Smith and Mayor Manheimer cautioned against increasing property tax rates and wanted close scrutiny of these new projects.  Gordon Smith (who is not running again this year) was concerned about the potential loss of federal funds (2 million and more) and Mayor Manheimer (who is running for re-election) was concerned about public outcry because taxpayers will still see an increase in their tax bill even if the tax rate is lowered because the property revaluations came in so high. While Gordon Smith is now fiscally concerned, we should all be concerned and ask our Council to be cautious and lower the tax rate.

City of Asheville: taking on the development game

City gets into the development game: RADTIP
 
Asheville Unreported attended the first of three city budget work session meetings held yesterday, March 15th and also attended the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission ("AARRC") monthly meeting held last Thursday, March 9th.
 
If you're not aware, the AARRC is in charge of all riverfront development within the City (Swannanoa River as well as French Broad River) including the massive $50 million project known as RADTIP (River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project).
 
A recurring theme in both meetings was concern over rising construction costs.  The RADTIP project,  approved in early 2013, was originally supposed to cost $50 million, of which $14.6 would be funded by a Federal “TIGER VI” grant. The plan was that City and its taxpayers would then be responsible for $22 to $25 million and the remaining would costs would be covered by various grants.
 
Now the RADTIP project includes four greenways, a roundabout and road realignment on Riverside Drive, and actual lowering on Riverside Drive at the Norfolk Southern Bridge (aka Festus Bridge).  It also called for substantial right of way takings from more than 30 private property owners, several of which are contesting these through lawsuits.  Counting the rights of way needed for the Greenways, this is the largest right of way taking in the history of Asheville and one of the largest construction projects the City has undertaken in years.
 
The 14.6  million TIGER VI funds, awarded 3 years ago, are a flat amount and are not adjusted for rising costs or inflation.  The City has yet to receive a final contract from the Feds, although City Manager Gary Jackson ($192,000 annual salary and benefits) said at yesterday's meeting, he was as "positive as he could be" that the contract would be received this May. 
 
Meanwhile the City has hired almost every construction, engineering, architect and environmental group in town to do preparation work for these projects which have only just begun.  The bids for the major portion of the construction projects are set to go out this month or next. The City is hoping that final bids will be awarded in May, with actual construction to start in June or July. 
 
That's three years after the 2014 awarding of the Federal grant money and the original estimation of this project.  Three years’ worth of inflation and rising construction costs.
 
Rising construction costs a concern by the City Finance Director and City Tiger VI Grant Manager
 
The City Finance Director, Barbara Whitehorn, ($152,000 annual salary and benefits) voiced this concern at yesterday's budget meeting during discussion of RADTIP and reported that her department is seeing annual increases of 10% and quarterly increases of 20% in construction costs.  At that rate, by the time the project actually begins, actual costs will have doubled and inflation will have inflated the price tag by half again the original estimate.
 
In short, the City's original estimation of this project at $50 million is beginning to look like a bargain.  It could eventually rise to more than $70 million and that's assuming no construction surprises or issues.
 
And, at last week's AARRC meeting, Dustin Clemens, the new TIGER VI Project Manager (recently hired by the city just to handle the Federal Tiger VI grant projects), warned that it was important to get these construction bids and do final awarding to lock in the prices precisely because of rising construction costs.
 
Forewarned
 
At the May 17, 2016 City Council meeting last year, Chris Peterson, one of the French Broad River property owners whose property was seized for RADTIP, warned the Council of these rising construction costs.  In fact he specifically stated that construction costs rise at least 10% annually  (Click here to watch the video and go specifically to 54:00 minutes). If you watch this video and listen to Ms. Whitehorn's budget discussion, they say almost the same thing, verbatim.
 
Why was Mr. Peterson so concerned? As he stated to City Council, because it will be the City taxpayers who will foot the bill for those increases.  Given the City's history of development, it is likely that this RADTIP project could be the breaking point for the City's fiscal balance sheet.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Asheville’s transit system is bleeding out, But Cecil Bothwell has good news.

Councilman wants to test robotic shuttle vehicles in downtown Asheville
By Roger McCredie
The City of Asheville’s bus service is hemorrhaging money at the rate of more than $5 million a year, but forget that; there’s great news on another transit front.  Councilman Cecil Bothwell sees a way to relieve the city’s chronic parking problem and make it fun to get around downtown.
Bothwell has seen the future, and it doesn’t have a driver.
Viva Las Vegas
For several days last month the City of Las Vegas conducted an experiment in multimodal transportation:  it put electric shuttle vehicles to work ferrying people up and down the city’s busy Fremont Street.  
But these shuttles were different from conventional ones.  They had no human operators.  They piloted themselves by means of computer programming and electronic sensors.
Bothwell said he has been communicating with the conductors (no pun intended) of the Vegas experiment and wants “to bring the test to Asheville in the not distant future.”
“This will change everything,” Bothwell said in a recent Facebook post.
Bothwell, who just announced he will run for a a third four-year term on City Council, told Asheville Unreported, “I’m in touch with the company doing the demos out west (Las Vegas, Austin, L.A.) trying to line something up here. I contacted them via the Las Vegas transit person who oversaw the test. She was quite enthusiastic about the test and the public response.”
The shuttles tested in Las Vegas were Navia vehicles, manufactured by the French robotics company Induct.  During the test they performed at a pre-programmed  speed of 12.5 miles per hour, though the manufacturer says they have a top speed of 27 mph. They are powered by lithium-ion phosphate batteries.
Navia says its shuttles “are designed to provide ‘last-mile mobility’ at airports, universities, theme parks, shopping malls, historical monuments and other densely packed places.”
The models tested in Las Vegas have a seating capacity of 12, but  Bothwell’s vision for Downtown Asheville involves larger capacity units.
“Even adding one such vehicle as a downtown shuttle would go some way toward relieving the parking problem,” Bothwell told Asheville Unreported.
But before somebody can hop on a driverless shuttle at Pack Square and hum on over to the Pritchard Park drum circle, two main factors will have to be resolved, particularly in light of the abysmal state of Asheville’s current transit system.
First:  Logistics
On both ends of the transaction —  production and installation – a driverless public transit system for Asheville seems not quite ready for prime time.
There are presently some half a dozen robotic shuttle manufacturers in existence, including (wait for it) Google.  And they’ve been turning out units in increasing volume since about 2009.  Robotic shuttles are already in limited use in Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills.
But, experts say, the very thing that makes them attractive is also their main problem:  the absence of a driver.  Navigating traffic is a highly intuitive and interactive process and so far no single computer program has been produced that can anticipate and deal with all its variables.  Sensors, for example, detect other motor vehicles easily, but don’t do well with bicycles.  And four-way stop signs, which require a judgment call, have been problematic.  Robotic shuttles have been responsible for a number of real-world fender benders and even injuries.
And integrating such a system into a community’s downtown area requires considerable engineering, up to and including a complete redo of a city’s entire traffic pattern.
There are even legal considerations, such as civil and criminal liability for accidents caused by programmers or operators who are intoxicated.   (For that matter, local wags have commented that part of Bothwell’s interest in the project may stem from his own 2014 DWI citation.)
Second: Money
The sticker price of the Navia shuttles used in Las Vegas is about $250,000 each, and the running cost is estimated at $10,000 a month per vehicle.  That, of course, doesn’t include ancillary equipment, infrastructure revamping, or technicians’ salaries.
But if Bothwell sees cost as a bar to making downtown robotic, he hasn’t mentioned it.  And after all, the city has a well established recent history of being able to find money for things it takes a notion to fund.
Plus, city administration recently persuaded voters to pass a $32 million transportation bond.  True, driverless shuttles aren’t on the menu of that bond’s listed projects, but a sizeable loophole in the bond language allows its money to be spent on any undertaking that can be related to “transportation.”
And meanwhile, back at the bus stop …
According to the city’s most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (for FYE  June 30, 2016), the cost of a city bus is less than $100,000.  And the average lifespan for 30-foot buses is 10 years (12 years for 35-foot vehicles).
But the city’s mass transit fund is currently operating at a loss of approximately $5.8 million.  In 2016, it brought in revenue of $786,588 from its 15 city routes, plus one to Black Mountain.  That’s an annualized net deficit of just over $5 million.
As a nod to public transportation, the city has earmarked $500,000 of its transportation bond for the construction of 20 new bus shelters. According to its own bond applicationthe city has not built any new bus shelters in three years. And according to a mass transit study conducted for the city in 2009, there are 25 existing bus stops (out of 87) where 25 or more persons board buses every day, adding up to 149,000 workday trips per year.
“For some reason, bus shelters are really expensive,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said last year
But Moving right along …
“Once I have more information I’ll take it to the Multimodal Transportation Commission,” Bothwell said.  (The MTC is the body that says greenways count as transportation elements because they have bike lanes.  It includes the Asheville Transit Committee.)
“Next steps would hinge on action by that Commission and support from my fellow Council members,” Bothwell said. “ My sense is that if Navia (the manufacturer) and Keolis (which actually arranged the demo) are willing, then a demonstration project could be evaluated by the Commission and the City transportation department.”
Bothwell has indicated he intends to move the robotic shuttle idea from what-if to let’s-get-r-done in the near future.
“My hope is that we can adopt this model relatively soon,” Bothwell said. “ Drivers are the pinch point in transit. We need large buses to amortize the cost of drivers over as many riders as possible. Without drivers we will be able to move to 15 passenger vehicles on 15 minute schedules for many routes, making transit much more convenient.”
Former city council candidate Mark Cates offered an alternative near-term proposal. “Seriously,”  he asked, “given the poor infrastructure we have in Asheville, couldn’t we just focus on spending our limited resources on that?
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