As part of its ongoing efforts to cut costs, Buncombe County is considering privatizing its Mountain Mobility transportation system. County Manager Wanda Greene reports that the government plans to accept proposals from private entities interested in taking over operations beginning later this month.
Mountain Mobility currently operates 37 vans and five buses that serve an average of over 500 passengers per day. Those passengers include members of the general public who ride its three fixed routes as well as low income residents who use its services for transportation to medical appointments. It also functions as the transit wing of many of the county’s human service agencies.
The county allocated $3,056,157 for transportation services out of its total operating budget of $327,069,877 for the 2011 fiscal year. Greene says that the goal in privatizing the system would be to get more bang for taxpayers’ buck.
“If we can’t increase the service level, then we need to decrease the cost of what we’re doing,” she explains. “Our focus has been to keep the same level of expenditures but lets see if we can actually get more service, leverage more service with the dollars we’re investing.”
As the county grapples with what’s projected to be a tough 2012 budget, Greene says the overall strategy applies to more than just the transportation service.
“We’ve asked all our departments to bring in a seven to 10 percent cut and to look to see who we can partner with and where we can develop good partnerships,” she says.
Greene cautions that any decision with Mountain Mobility will be weighed thoroughly.
“We don’t know what we’ll get back,” she says. “The bottom line will be: same or increased level of service, same or decreased costs, and then making sure those who are employed [by Mountain Mobility] continue to be employed somewhere in the community – whether it’s by us or by a provider – those are our guiding principles.”
Started in 1989, Mountain Mobility was operated by private contractors for much of its existence. However, in 2005, Greene says that the county took over operations from MV Transportation because “gas prices got out of hand and the provider had some difficulties.”
Since then, however, costs of running the service have “gone up several hundred thousand dollars,” Greene reports. “So we want to look again and see if there’s an option to privatize it.”
Meanwhile, some are concerned that the possible move could hamper long-term efforts to more efficiently integrate transit services throughout the region. Last September, the state Department of Transportation released an Asheville/Buncombe/Henderson Regional Feasibility Study that assessed current public-transit operations in those areas and endorsed coordinating and consolidating them to save money and increase services.
It outlined a number of specific recommendations, including hiring a regional mobility manager, establishing a regional transit council, marketing services jointly, coordinating routes and schedules more effectively, adopting common passenger and employee policies, instituting joint procurements and seeking dedicated funding sources.
Asheville Transit Commission Chair Paul Van Heden worries that privatization could “put a kink in” those plans for regionalization.
“It’s not that privatizing Mountain Mobility is either good or bad,” he notes. “But in my opinion, if they privatize it, it kind of locks the county into treating their transportation as a social service rather than as transportation infrastructure.”
Greene, however, maintains that despite the possible privatization, the county remains interested in a more regional approach.
“If the city is really interested in consolidating right now, we could go ahead and take that step,” she says. “As far as the regional approach, it’s not always easy to bring counties and cities together to do anything, but that is foremost in our mind when we’re looking at the administrative end of it.”