Monday, May 1, 2017

The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round … and the taxes creep up and up.

The city wants to collect more money for its transit system. To pay for what?
By Roger McCredie
Managing Editor

Asheville Redefines Transit. ART, get it? Since 2012 that’s been the official name of Asheville’s municipally-owned public transportation company. The acronym is on each and every blue-and-green Asheville city bus, together with the subhead, “Ride. Relax. Connect.”

Now, the conventional definition of “transit” is “the carrying of people, goods, or materials from one place to another.” and the inference is that ART gives new meaning to the word by making riding the bus in Asheville a pleasant, efficient and thrifty way to get around town.

But as the city plods through its annual preliminary budgeting process, ordinary folks looking to get where they need to go are clamoring to be heard, while the transit system itself remains in chronic disarray and the only solution actually on offer is a (further) hike in property taxes.

Some critics of how the city’s transit system is run – or not – are quick to say that this amounts to an unfocused attempt to fix an ongoing, multi-level problem by throwing money at it. Others, including some bus riders themselves, say it’s not enough and that the city should consider diverting funds from other proposed expenditures – such as beefing up the police department – for further transit operation improvements.
New ART bus

The best-laid plans …

In 2009 the city adopted in principle a $6.1 million transit master plan ("TMP") that called for replacement of buses with new hybrid models, plus revamped bus routes and sweeping improvements in amenities, among them unilateral Sunday bus service.

But adopting the TMP and implementing it proved to be two different things.

The plan mostly languished until, late in 2012, the city got hold of enough federal and state money to buy nine new buses and slap the new ART logo and color scheme on them. In late 2014 the city pried loose $112,000 from its general fund to match a one-time federal job access grant. The combined monies paid for a year’s worth of Sunday service, but left COA scrambling for funds to keep Sunday rides going. 

Then the TMP dozed off again while folks began to point out that instead of coming to grips with its transit problems the city was enthusiastically pouring time, energy, and money into the sexier aspects of multimodal transportation: greenways and bike paths.

And meanwhile there came a swelling chorus of complaints from ART customers about the quality of existing services.


Thanks to a Byzantine difference between state and federal transportation laws, the City of Asheville is required to have an outside company manage its transportation system on a day-to-day basis, with oversight by city employees. In 2008 COA hired Professional Transit Management ("PTM") to maintain and run its bus fleet.

In 2011 PTM was swallowed by the French conglomerate Transdev and that year – the same year that it unveiled ART – COA signed an initial three-year contract with Cincinnati-based First Transit.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. By 2013 passengers, local groups, and even the Transport Workers’ Union were accusing First Transit of sloppy management and outright negligence. A city maintenance mechanic, under anonymity, described the state of the transit operation as “chaos.”

The “19-Point Agenda”

In 2014 Just Economics, a workers’ activist group whose advocacy includes public transportation, put forth a 19-point “Agenda for Transportation Reform” that included passenger representation on transit-related bodies, unilateral Sunday and extended nighttime service, an annual review of stop locations, more and better shelters, and “transparency and public participation through good information sharing.” (The city received the plan as information; it’s still around and is sometimes even referred to; see below.)

In 2015 the city decided it probably should do something, so it decided to put the transit system management gig up for grabs on a year-to-year basis. But first it renewed the First Transit contract for another year. Thus, in February, a year and a half after it was originally suggested, the city put together and circulated a request for proposals for a turnkey operations and maintenance contract for ART. Deadline for filing RFP’s, according to the document, is this May 2.

Also in February, Just Economics declared the observance of “Transit Week,” a seven-day event that focused on the 19-point agenda. Some of those points, advocates said, have received some attention but the most important ones, they said, have not.

Then there’s the money. Or not.

Just Economics would like to see an immediate increase of more than $3 million in Asheville’s transit budget.

City Bus Stop with No Shelter from the Rain
Corner of Chestnut and Charlotte St.

Lotsa luck. The 2017 budget stands at $7.5 million, up from $6.6 million in 2016. The city has said repeatedly that its capital improvement program is maxed out. The only transit-related item in the $32 million transportation bond issue approved by voters last November is a $500,000 proposed allocation for new bus shelters and that's because the City, admittedly, has not installed new bus shelters in the past 3 years. The only new shelters are those funded by private development projects.) (A new greenway and citywide greenway connectors, by contrast, are budgeted at $4,600,000.)

City Bus Stop with Shelter
by property developers
Corner of Chestnut and Merrimon
Other transit advocates, looking to shake the tree, have taken an either/or approach to transit funding. At a March city council meeting, while Police Chief Tammy Hooper was inside asking for an additional $1 million in the face of a soaring downtown crime rate, members of the group Beloved Asheville picketed outside, calling for that money “to go to the people,” especially for job training and better bus service.

Don’t fret, bus riders, the city said, we’ve got you covered. Well, partly, anyway.

At a budget work session on April 12 councilor Julie Mayfield, a former city Transit Committee chair, suggested a hike in city property taxes to cover the implementation of two transit projects: expanded Sunday service and adding evening hours for some bus routes. The costs involved would be about $630,000, and a tax increase of half a cent would more than cover that amount, she said.

Mayfield’s proposed tax hike cannot be voted on until the presentation of the finished budget in June. Council members Brian Haynes and Cecil Bothwell originally mentioned a full one-cent tax increase for transit and would probably support a compromise. But Mayor Esther Manheimer seems ambivalent about adding to Ashevillians’ tax burden, as does Councilor Gordon Smith, whose caution seems at odds with his previously passionate advocacy of transit funding.

“This [transit] is a core city service. It is like water, it is like police, it is like fire, it is something that we must do,” Smith said in 2015.

Meanwhile, the city has said it intends to shift its transit focus from infrastructure and management details to fleet update over the next few years, and will accordingly use such capital as it can muster to phase in new buses, replacing the system’s aging coaches, some of which are 12 years old.

At a recent meeting of the city’s advisory Multimodal Transportation Commission, a chart was distributed showing tentative bus replacement schedules for the years 2017 through 2032. During each of the next five fiscal years, according to the chart, the city can avail itself of 20% matching federal funds to help purchase new units, enabling the fleet to increase from 21 to 26 units over that time.

Accordingly, this coming year the city wants to purchase two new buses for a total of $920,000, with $184,000 in federal money available. (In fiscal 2018 COA has its eye on six new buses, with a funding allocation of $2.8 million.) CIP moneys have already been earmarked for that purpose, the city maintains.

But when MTC member and city council candidate Kim Roney asked, “Where do these funds actually come from?” city planner Vaidila Sastvika, the city’s liaison to the Commission, said, “That’s a good question. I don’t have the answer.”

“I presume you’re digging through unspent funds,” member Dave Nutter said.

“Yes,” said Satvika.

For a while it was possible to ride an ART bus for free in central Asheville, but in 2015 the city eliminated its downtown fare-free zone, saying it was too seldom used and therefore not cost effective. It now costs a dollar to ride, relax and connect with ART.

And many riders feel they’re not getting much bang for their buck.

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