The fare for a rider on Asheville’s bus system is $1, but running those buses costs considerably more. And at its Jan. 14 meeting, Asheville City Council heard that the projected need for transit funding was $500,000 more than budgeted at the July 1, 2019, start of the fiscal year.
Jessica Morriss, Asheville’s assistant director of transportation, explained that the higher costs were primarily driven by federally mandated door-to-door paratransit service for residents with disabilities. Not only are more riders taking advantage of the service, she said, but the average trip distance has also increased.
The remaining transit budget gap, Morriss said, was due to higher-than-expected prices for fuel and electricity to power Asheville’s buses. In total, the expected $500,000 gap represents a 4.9% increase over the $10.16 million transit services fund for fiscal year 2019-20.
Morriss added that due to this fiscal reality, the city would likely not be able to lengthen the hours of bus operation for the rest of the year, an expansion called for by the 2018 Transit Master Plan. City planners estimated the cost of that extension at $250,000 to $300,000. “It would be challenging, to say the least, primarily because we’re in a $500,000 shortfall,” she said.
Looking ahead to fiscal year 2020-21, Morriss said her department would request an additional $2.5 million to cover the extra paratransit and fuel costs, as well as pay for a full year of the Transit Master Plan changes that began on Jan. 5. Roughly $400,000 of that increase, she added, would cover a portion of paratransit services currently subsidized by Buncombe County government, which has told the city it intends to eliminate that funding in its next budget cycle.
Council member Julie Mayfield, who has long positioned herself as an advocate for transit expansion, said she hoped her Buncombe colleagues would reconsider their decision to end the paratransit subsidy. County government, she pointed out, is responsible for most of the area’s other health and human services expenses, and all city residents are also residents of the county.
“Feel free to take that message back to them,” Mayfield told Morriss.
In other news
After nearly an hour of discussion and signs of opposition from Council member Keith Young, developer Harry Pilos asked Council to delay a decision on his request for a conditional zoning amendment to the RAD Lofts project until Tuesday, Feb. 25. The change would have reduced the project’s percentage of residential units covered by affordability restrictions from 100% to 10%, a move he said was necessary to secure investor funding.
Pilos claimed that none of Asheville’s affordability incentives made economic sense for the project and said he would offer the 10% of affordable units without city support. But Young suggested that the developer’s proposal wouldn’t meet city housing goals. “This sort of development promotes gentrification,” he said.
Council also approved the issuance of $23.2 million in general obligation bonds initially authorized by city residents as part of a 2016 referendum. Instead of directly funding projects, the bond sale will be used to pay back a form of short-term debt called a bond anticipation note; city CFO Barbara Whitehorn noted that Asheville has already spent $15.6 million of that money on affordable housing projects and plans to draw on the remainder over the next month.