- One week more for Weaverville Route
- Annexation agreement keeps Asheville and Woodfin out of Leicester
- City in talks with CTS neighbors over water lines
A sweeping overhaul of Asheville's transit system won preliminary support from Asheville City Council at its Oct. 27 meeting, but concrete changes to the routes, fares and infrastructure won't come before the new year.
Developed over the past two years by consultants HDR Inc. of the Carolinas with the help of Asheville city staff, a steering committee and several well-attended public-input sessions, the Transit Master Plan is geared toward making city bus routes more efficient and attractive to users and toward increasing ridership via marketing efforts. But the plan, which cost $100,000 to develop, also outlines increased city expenditures in the neighborhood of $1.2 million that may bring price hikes for bus passes.
Some of the most dramatic changes in service, explained HDR representative Robert Bush, include Sunday service for some major arteries like Merrimon Avenue, Haywood Road and Tunnel Road, and a cross-town route that lets riders get from the west side of town to the east side without having to go through the downtown transit hub. The plan also contains infrastructure improvements, such as new buses and transit stations. (To see the entire plan, go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.)
Many on the transit scene spoke in favor of its adoption.
"If my drivers could have it up and going tomorrow they would," Asheville Transit General Manager Edna Johnson told Council.
Paul Van Heden, a former marketing director for the transit system who preceded that job by blogging on transportation issues as the "Transit Ninja," urged Council to pass the entire plan and not tweak any elements until city staff could see how it all ran. "One of the main problems as a bus rider and bike rider is not terrain," he said of the current system. "It is our infrastructure." The city, he said, should not be scared away by the increased cost (which would exceed the city's contribution, relying on approximately $5 million in outside funding). And marketing the system is worth the investment a campaign would take, he said. In order to increase ridership, the image of the transit system has to improve.
"The view of public transit is that it is a handout instead of a critical piece of our infrastructure," Van Heden told Council, urging them not to skimp on transit funding.
Others praised the overall plan but took issue with some of its specifics. Along with establishing some new routes and increasing service on others, the plan also calls for some service cuts. Housing Authority Executive Director Gene Bell advised against axing weekend service to the authority-owned Klondyke Homes on Montford Avenue, where many residents work in the service sector.
"We think [this] could be a deterrent for people being able to get to work," he said.
Council's enthusiasm for the plan was also tempered by budgetary caution. Council member Brownie Newman suggested adopting the draft but waiting until the Council's winter retreat to discuss any funding changes.
"If we implement the plan, it would take a $1.2 million budget amendment tonight," Newman said. "I have a feeling we're going to want to think about that. We're going to have to address the funding piece over time."
City Manager Gary Jackson backed up that sentiment, saying any budget increases for transit have to be weighed within the bigger picture of the city budget.
For Council Member Carl Mumpower, the reliance on state funding was a deal breaker. Depending on financing that might not be there in future state budgets made the plan a "fairy tale and a taxpayer nightmare," he said.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis said his support would depend on Council's ability to consider pieces as the funding picture got more clear.
"[We should] use it as a guideline and implement them as we can afford them," he said. "Just to pick it up and say, 'This is what we're going to do,' … I can't support that."
The strategy sounds close to what was employed for the Downtown Master Plan. In May, when Council adopted the DMP "in concept," Council said it would implement parts of the plan as they were brought forward by city staff, working first on the parts that needed little or no additional funding. So far, none have come to Council.
In that vein, Mayor Terry Bellamy said she would like to consider an implementation committee that could help staff navigate the best plans of attack. And in addition to the financial hurdles, she predicted that cutting some service in transit-dependent areas of town will prove to be challenging. "We are going to have to make some tough decisions," she said.
Council voted to accept the master plan in a 6-1 vote, with Mumpower voting "no." It will begin examining the plan's financial details at its retreat in early January.
Keeping the lines open
While on the topic of transit, Council also voted unanimously to extend the Asheville-Weaverville bus route for one week beyond its Oct. 31 termination date while other options fall into place for the route's riders. The Weaverville bus had been running five times a day until the N.C. Department of Transportation pulled its funding. The town of Weaverville followed suit, and the route was supposed to expire at the end of October. But after hearing from one rider who has been collecting signatures of support, Council voted to sped the $4,800 it would need to keep the route open for one more week. That may give the Buncombe County-funded Mountain Mobility an opportunity to spread the word about its own North Buncombe shuttle service that picks up and drops off in Weaverville.
Big step in Woodfin agreement
In 1971, the town of Woodfin incorporated, partly to protect itself from annexation by the city of Asheville. But Woodfin has also engaged in annexation practices of its own. Most recently, in September, it ditched plans to annex part of Erwin Hills and Leicester. (See "Woodfin Pulls Back from Annexation Plans," Sept. 23 Xpress.)
Since 2003, Asheville and Woodfin have been in discussions to establish an annexation agreement about areas close to both towns, a conversation spawned primarily by construction of the high-end Reynolds Mountain development. Such an agreement, allowed by state law, would mean that the two would not battle one another in future annexations.
City attorney Bob Oast notes that the words "annexation agreement" send chills up the spines of annexation opponents. "It is an unfortunate term," he told Council, "because a lot of people think it means you are going to annex."
Rather, he says, it defines where each town can grow if they choose to annex new areas. Currently, much of that discussion surrounds small bites of property in a narrow belt between Asheville and Woodfin.
But one big result of the talks may be assurances by Asheville and Woodfin that neither will look to annex Leicester while residents are pursuing incorporation. In 2007, Leicester residents approached Council several times to get its endorsement of their incorporation drive, but Council would only agree to a resolution supporting a referendum on the matter.
Now there is an agreement on the table that neither town will try to annex any part of the Leicester Township for three years while it pursues incorporation. While a handful of other agreement issues may be put on hold as members of Council look more closely at them, Bellamy said she wanted to move on the Leicester issue as a demonstration of good faith.
The three-year moratorium passed unanimously but has to pass a vote by the Woodfin Board of Aldermen before becoming official.
Under the umbrella
For some people, annexation by Asheville sounds pretty appealing. The residential areas most affected by contamination at the former CTS site on Mill's Gap Road are not within the city limits of Asheville and are therefore out of Council's jurisdiction. But judging from the comments of a few who spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, some are willing to change that, even if it means annexation. Residents near the CTS site have written numerous letters to state and federal agencies asking for cleanup of the site, and they have often appeared before Buncombe County Commissioners, sometimes requesting that water lines be extended to the area.
In 2007, the county did just that, funding line extensions to the nearby Oaks subdivision. But many other neighbors are still without piped-in water, relying instead on wells near the CTS site, which has tested positive for high levels of trichloroethylene.
On Oct. 27 they said their mission was twofold: to seek the city's support on another resolution urging the EPA to perform a cleanup and to see if there is any way to get Asheville water lines to serve the entire area.
"We respect the fact that this is not in your jurisdiction," said resident Tate MacQueen. "We are looking for you to help us push for money."
Resident Aaron Penland agreed. "Our objective isn't to beat you up. Our mission is to plead for help," he said.
This is not the first time the city has involved itself in the protracted CTS situation. In May, Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing a negotiation between CTS and the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources that would drastically cut back the amount of cleanup required.
But running water to homes in the area will take more figuring than a resolution, so Council directed city staff to meet with the residents and see if a solution could be found. Jackson noted that there are several ways to connect homes outside the city to its water system. Two are relatively uncontroversial: households could apply for lines and pay the upfront engineering costs themselves, or the city could enter into a partnership with Buncombe County to provide them. A third route is voluntary annexation, a typically thorny process that was nonetheless broached by MacQueen.
And he noted that being under the city's umbrella may give their cause more clout.
Council members did not seem opposed to annexation but said that it would take research. They directed city staff to meet with area residents to discuss options for water service and to investigate if voluntary annexation would be possible.