Buses were on the minds of at least some Asheville City Council members during their Jan. 28 meeting when Mayor Esther Manheimer, along with Council members Brian Haynes and Julie Mayfield, prepared to ask City Manager Debra Campbell to look into funding sources for increased bus service hours.
But like a broken-down bus, the talks stalled before any progress was made. Council member Vijay Kapoor called the move “totally blindsiding” because the topic was raised during informal discussion and did not appear on the agenda.
“Clearly, you all have — someone’s been having conversations about doing this tonight. Not all members of Council were informed on this,” Kapoor said. “I don’t have an issue with us looking at things, but I don’t even know the content of what we’re talking about.”
Manhiemer explained that the action would only have directed Campbell to inform Council members of their options to finish funding phase one of the Transit Master Plan and would not actually amend the city’s budget. Nevertheless, she agreed to table the discussion and formally include the issue on the next Council agenda.
The city has seen bus improvements this year through the partial implementation of phase one of the 2018 plan, including new routes and more frequent service. But Council hasn’t yet fully funded the plan, which would extend the hours of all bus routes until 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 8 p.m. on Sunday.
At their Jan. 14 meeting, Council members learned that transit funding for the 2019-20 fiscal year is projected to fall $500,000 short even without implementing the extended hours. Jessica Morriss, Asheville’s assistant director of transportation, explained that the deficit was primarily driven by increases in federally mandated door-to-door paratransit service for residents with disabilities and higher-than-expected prices for fuel and electricity.
Roughly 10 people spoke during public comment in favor of longer hours, including several members of the Sunrise Movement, who were simultaneously celebrating the passage of a climate emergency resolution just moments before.
“We’re standing here today in solidarity with Just Economics and to support the extension of bus hours for those citizens who do not have access to cars and must walk home every day in the dark,” said activist Sally Thames.
Vicki Meath, director of Just Economics and the Better Buses Together campaign, told Council members that she and other commenters planned to walk a South French Broad resident home after the meeting — a gesture emphasizing that community members who rely on buses for transportation often are left without a ride after attending City Council meetings.
“Last year in 2019, 40% of Council meetings ended after the last bus left for [the South French Broad] neighborhood. Sixty-five percent of the meetings in 2019 ended after the last bus left for the Klondike neighborhood up in north Asheville,” she said. “Again, we’re asking for a budget amendment for evening service hours.”