With Thanksgiving looming, a short agenda for the Asheville City Council’s Nov. 20 meeting seemed par for the course. But a last-minute surprise did slide onto the evening’s agenda—a proposal to convert the city’s bus fleet to hybrid vehicles.
“We think this is the right time to do this,” said interim Transit Manager Mariate Echeverry. “If we don’t change the technology now, it will set us behind in the next 10 years.”
The city bus fleet, said Echeverry, is outdated. Most vehicles are 11 years old, and though they can still be repaired, parts are becoming harder to find, since that type of bus is no longer manufactured. Meanwhile, the N.C. Department of Transportation is handing out grant money to cities that want to replace their fleets, and Asheville hopes to leverage those funds to acquire 15 new buses over the next three years.
Age is not the only issue, however, and Echeverry recommended upgrading the fleet to hybrid buses, which use 25 to 50 percent less fuel and emit fewer pollutants. Although the grants will also fund diesel vehicles, the DOT will give preference to cities that want to make the jump to hybrids, according to the staff report.
“I just want to say that I am so excited about this,” gushed Council member Brownie Newman, who has consistently pushed both sustainability and transit-reform initiatives. “This is just one of the most powerful ways we can make a really—not just symbolic, but powerful impact.”
The buses will cost between $550,000 and $600,000 apiece, said Echeverry—significantly more than a standard diesel vehicle’s $370,000 price tag—but the five targeted for purchase next year will collectively cut annual operating expenses by $135,000.
“We’re going to get our money back,” declared Council member Bryan Freeborn. “We’re going to end up in the black.”
Because a hybrid’s batteries are recharged when the vehicle’s brakes are applied, the stop-and-go nature of urban transit makes these buses a good candidate for the technology. The switch will also greatly reduce public transit’s large carbon footprint, noted Newman.
To secure the $2.7 million in DOT grants for 2008, the city must bring a $100,000 match to the table.
But the last-minute nature of the discussion didn’t sit well with Council member Carl Mumpower, who pointed out that the issue hadn’t gone before the city’s Transit Commission. A similar procedural concern the previous week had sparked his resignation from the Public Safety Committee (which he chaired) and the Revenue and Finance Committee.
Freeborn said he’d received several e-mails from Transit Commission members urging Council to go ahead with the deal.
Transportation and Engineering Director Cathy Ball explained that the motion on the table merely expressed the city’s interest, in order to help secure the DOT grants. The actual purchase of hybrid buses would still have to come before Council at a later date. “It does not cause us to spend money at this point,” noted Ball.
And though he eventually supported the motion, Council member Jan Davis, too, said he felt the matter was being rushed, asserting that Echeverry’s presentation had lacked some crucial information about initial capital costs. “We have facts on the table, but not all the facts,” said Davis.
Council member Robin Cape, pointing out that grant money is often made available on short notice, noted, “We have already made a commitment to sustainability.”
In the end, the measure passed on a 5-1 vote, with Mumpower the lone holdout (Mayor Terry Bellamy was out of town, and Vice Mayor Holly Jones presided.)
Waiting for the hammer to fall
Asheville will take its chances on recouping the money it loaned a failed housing project rather than accept a much smaller amount from a speculator.
The city loaned the ailing McCormick Heights project, which is now on the brink of foreclosure, a total of $363,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant and HOME funds. But because Asheville is not the only lender involved in the deal, the city would have to wait in line to get its money back, attorney Scott Best explained. Best, representing Vision Bank (the property’s primary lender) said an Atlanta investor group had offered to pay Asheville $50,000 to drop the debt obligation. The Asheville Housing Authority, another partner in the deal, has already accepted $10,000 from the group in lieu of its $100,000 loan, he noted.
Although the $50,000 represents only about 13 percent of what the city loaned the project, Best emphasized that the property was headed for the auction block, and unless it fetched more than $2.5 million on Nov. 29, the city would not see one dime. “If it sells for $2.5 million and one dollar, I will write the city a check for one dollar,” he proclaimed.
But the growing interest in Asheville and the property’s strategic location close to downtown led a majority of Council members to believe the auction would yield a better return for the city. “It’s hard for me to believe that this property, with its location, wouldn’t be valuable,” said Cape.
City Attorney Bob Oast, though, noted that the property’s current condition would mean a lot of work for whoever buys it. “There is a pretty significant teardown job,” he cautioned. Staff recommended taking the $50,000.
Last December, the city tried to buy McCormick Heights outright for $2.5 million and spent $120,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds relocating residents. A few months later, however, the city backed out of the deal after title problems came to light that would have restricted how the city could use the property.
Believing that it would sell for more than the $2.5 million opening bid posted by Vision Bank, Newman made a motion to refuse the $50,000 offer and just see how the sale played out. Council member Davis said he would just as soon settle, observing, “It is a fiscally responsible position to take this money.”
And while Mumpower said the city’s relationship with McCormick Heights amounted to a “tremendous failure,” he, too, preferred to let the “failure play out” by gambling on the auction.
Council rejected the $50,000 offer on a 4-2 vote, with Davis and Jones opposed.
Charting our past
It’s easy to tell just by looking around that Asheville is rich in historic architecture, but there’s never been a comprehensive survey of these treasures. That’s about to change, however, thanks to a condition the Federal Highway Administration placed on funding it provided for the Pack Square renovation project. As part of the deal, the FHA stipulated that the city must undertake such an inventory.
Acme Preservation Services will conduct the two-year survey, which will cost $105,300.42. The work is not expected to delay progress on the Pack Square project.
Jones, who is Council’s liaison with the Asheville-Buncombe Historic Resources Commission, said: “If they had their druthers, they wouldn’t use [the money] in that way. But there will be some use to the city in there.”
Cape agreed. “This will help if we are going to do other projects in the future,” she said. “We will not have that lag.”
The contract was approved 5-1, with Mumpower opposed.
Nerves of steel
“We had a relatively calm year,” noted Public Art Board Chair Barbara Cary in her annual report. Her comment seemed to hint at the turmoil surrounding the board in previous years. In 2003, the purchase of Ida Kohlmeyer‘s “Conversation Piece #4C” (now installed in the Asheville Art Museum) sparked an uproar. And the removal of Dirck Cruser‘s “Energy Loop” from City/County Plaza last year revived the debate over that work’s merit. But the popularity of this year’s expanded and extended RiverSculpture Festival and other projects prompted Cary to call 2007 a success.
The city now has 39 pieces of public art, with a total appraised value of roughly $1 million, said Carey, and a new piece by Harry McDaniel—honored by the board as Asheville’s Public Artist of the Year—is now in the works (see sidebar).
Meanwhile, the newly restored “Energy Loop” now rests in Barnardsville, awaiting re-installation. When that happens, perhaps sometime next year, things may again grow less calm for the board.