City officials rolled out the latest addition to Asheville’s transit system — five all-electric buses from Greenville, S.C.-based Proterra — with great fanfare in front of the Asheville Redefines Transit station on Feb. 15. The buses themselves, however, glided along with scarcely any noise at all on their inaugural loops around downtown.
“You can actually have a conversation on the way,” remarked Council member Julie Mayfield as she took her first trip on one of the new vehicles. But beyond improving rider experience, she noted, the new wheels play a key role in the city’s carbon reduction goals.
Even accounting for the fossil fuels needed to generate the electricity they will use, Mayfield said, each vehicle will produce 54 fewer tons of annual carbon emissions than one of Asheville’s current buses. Once all five buses hit the streets, the total emissions savings of 270 tons will make up a third of the city’s annual carbon reduction target.
The financial cost of achieving those carbon savings, Mayfield noted, was largely defrayed by grants from the Federal Transit Administration and French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization. Asheville is responsible for funding roughly 20 percent of the fleet acquisition; a purchase order for one bus and its associated charging station came to approximately $617,000, making Asheville’s share of the bill about $123,000.
In a press release issued before the event, city spokesperson Polly McDaniel explained that three electric buses have been delivered, with two more scheduled to arrive in March. Bus drivers and maintenance staff will be trained on operating the new vehicles, and they will enter passenger service sometime in the spring. Three more buses are expected to arrive before the end of 2019.
Transit advocates at the debut, including the Rev. Amy Cantrell of Better Buses Together, applauded the new buses but emphasized that they are just one component of much-needed upgrades to Asheville’s transit system. Council members approved a far-reaching Transit Master Plan last year, which calls for a 44 percent increase in service hours starting on July 1, but have yet to allocate money for its implementation.
“They’re saying we still can’t do it July 1, even though that was the timeline they set. We as riders are constantly being asked to wait. We’ve seen this multiple, multiple times,” Cantrell said. “Transit can’t wait.”
Speaking with Xpress from her seat on the new bus, Mayfield affirmed that implementing the plan by its initially scheduled date was unlikely. Staffing challenges within both the city and transit management company RATP Dev, she said, meant she wouldn’t make “any bets for July 1.”
However, Mayfield said she would make a bet of “100 percent” that the first round of Transit Master Plan changes would come into effect by January 2020. The city’s additional property tax revenue from newly for-profit Mission Hospital — estimated as roughly $7 million annually — “means that the money is not an object any more,” she explained.
“I don’t know that the city has another, higher priority,” Mayfield continued. “Expanding this system is making Asheville more affordable for everyone who lives here, and affordability, in my mind, is the biggest challenge. We put a lot of money toward affordable housing; we have not done the equivalent for transit, and the Mission money offers us the opportunity to do that.”