A bus driver stuffing paper towels around her fare box to soak up leaking coolant. An engine alert alarm beeping constantly on a crowded route. Two buses towed in a single day not for mechanical issues, but because they ran out of fuel during service.
None of those problems, reported by transit advocates in remarks to Council member Julie Mayfield after Council’s regular Aug. 28 meeting, made their way into the presentation on the state of the transit system given earlier in the evening. But city Transit Planning Manager Elias Mathes, as well as ART General Manager Joe Brooks, did acknowledge that the buses incurred major service interruptions that totaled 539.5 missed hours of service in July.
Mathes blamed the majority of those problems on the age of the city’s fleet and a lack of bus purchases in previous years. When multiple buses require extensive engine repairs, a process Brooks said can take two to three weeks, ART doesn’t have enough spare vehicles to serve all routes.
The city is expecting five new electric buses to arrive in November, roughly a month ahead of schedule, and ART management has leased a 12-passenger van to provide emergency transit capacity during vehicle breakdowns. Meanwhile, Brooks said he’s hiring mechanics for a third maintenance shift to accelerate repairs on existing vehicles.
“How do you rate your level of confidence that we won’t have another month like July? High, medium or low?” asked Mayfield after the presentation. “High,” Mathes responded, echoed by Brooks with “Definitely high.”
But Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics and representative of the Better Buses Together campaign, said the city could be doing more to hold RATP Dev, the independent company that manages the ART, accountable for service improvements. She pointed out that transit activists had worked closely with the city to develop a management contract that penalized missed hours and other problems.
“That management contract isn’t worth anything if we aren’t enforcing it,” Meath said. “We didn’t enforce liquidated damages; we didn’t enforce the management company having the correct number of mechanics. We haven’t pressed the company, and we need to do that.”
During the presentation, Mathes said that the management company “is making a good-faith effort to work with us.” While the city has withheld RATP Dev’s pay for the missed hours, he explained that city staff has been more lenient on other contract provisions due to the status of the buses that management inherited.
Joined by local bus driver’s union head Diane Allen and city Transit Committee member Kim Roney after the meeting, Meath called for Mayfield and other Council members to toughen up the city’s stance. Mayfield, however, said Council’s influence was limited, citing recent controversy over policy directions to the Asheville Police Department.
“Have you been watching what we can’t say to [Chief Tammy Hooper]‽ We can’t tell staff what to do,” Mayfield explained. “We can say to [interim City Manager Cathy Ball], it is our preference that you enforce the contract, but we don’t get to tell her that she has to do it.”