An uphill journey

More than 5,000 people board the Asheville Transit System's 21 buses every day except Sundays, when the buses don't run. A one-way ride on any of the 24 routes costs $1 (a monthly pass offering unlimited trips is $20), and ridership has been increasing since 2003.

In Transit: Transit Planning Manager Mariate Echeverry at the city's downtown bus terminal, its most-used location. The transit system is trying to make improvements while facing a tight budget situation. Photo by Jonathan Welch

But the system also faces its share of challenges — a limited budget, mountain geography, reduced federal funding — that result in a seemingly perpetual push to do more with less.

"We have a lot of capital needs, and due to all these financial situations, we cannot think about fulfilling those needs," Transportation Planning Manager Mariate Echeverry explains. The system did manage to dodge some $600,000 in transit cuts proposed as part of the city's quest to balance its battered budget, thanks in part to an eleventh-hour, $480,000 federal grant.

At the same time, mass transit — a popular issue among progressives these days — is a priority for a number of current City Council members. And the Transit Master Plan approved last year calls for more frequent buses serving more parts of the city during more hours each day.

On April 27, Council members authorized a number of improvements, including twice-hourly buses on key routes and an aggressive marketing campaign, which will be implemented over the next four to five months.

"The master plan is proposing changes that will improve performance and efficiency, but those changes require funding," says Echeverry. "We try to do what we can. We managed to do those improvements without affecting funding, but it's going to be very difficult to grow the system if we don't have more [money]."

Invisible buses

Critics view the city's marketing efforts, including the Art on Transit program rolled out in March, as frivolous, but Echeverry says they're needed to attract more riders.

"We have to have the marketing plan in place," she asserts. "We'd like to diversify the ridership and bring more people on the buses. One of the things we see with our buses is that they're kind of invisible: They meld with the environment, and no one notices them. One of the strategies to increase ridership is to give the system an image; the marketing plays a role in getting the word out."

In a survey the city conducted last year, 68 percent of participants said they use the bus not out of environmental concern or a desire to save money but because it's their only option. And apart from the downtown bus terminal, the system's most-used stops are the Hillcrest and Pisgah View housing projects. Echeverry, however, wants to attract more folks who choose to ride instead of driving their cars, and she hopes the 10 new buses the system will be gaining soon will help.

Both the city and the metropolitan area have grown over the past decade, and once Buncombe County's population crossed the 200,000 mark, the transit system was prohibited from using federal funds for operating costs under federal law (the grant just received is an exception under stimulus legislation).

Meanwhile, state law prohibits municipalities from dealing with unions, and federal law bars the city from breaking the transit union — leaving Asheville in the awkward spot of having to pay a management company $130,000 a year to deal with the union on its behalf.

A bumpy road

As if all that weren't enough, the mountains' unique geography poses additional hurdles.

"You are constrained — we would love to have crosstown routes, but we just cannot go from one place to another without coming downtown," says Echeverry. "We can't change the geography; it limits our options."

She stresses, however, that the major constraints are financial. "These changes require funding. We're implementing 30-minute frequency in four of the five corridors, but not Merrimon — and again, it's funding. Those were the options we could find that wouldn't have any financial impact in the near future."

Still, Echeverry believes the buses provide a useful service people need to be more aware of.

"I would like people to know that the transit system is safe, it's clean, it's — most of the time — reliable, and transit can take you places," she emphasizes. "It really can save you a lot of money. Even with the rate increase for the passes, they're very cheap. You can ride indefinitely during the month for just $20. That is a really good deal."

David Forbes can be reached at dforbes@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.

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