Transit management draws criticism at City Council meeting

James Gambrell with loaf of bread
CREATIVE LOAFING: Resident James Gambrell explains that, just like bread, the Asheville bus system doesn't function without dough. Transit advocates called for the city to enforce contractual penalties on ART management company RATP Dev for missed service hours in July. Photo by Daniel Walton

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.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and city government beat reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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9 thoughts on “Transit management draws criticism at City Council meeting

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    Decades of non leadership leave us in dire straits in the AVL … it still engulfs us.

  2. Lulz

    LOL why hold management accountable? City council doesn’t hold themselves to any. Tis the problem. Whenever the outcome they seek never comes to fruition, they just levy more extortion on property owners. You people think that giving them money is your moral duty? Me thinks they manipulate a willing pool of suckers and dopes and wasteful spending be damned. And what’s even funnier is you people think you’re doing something good. LOL, the only thing you’re doing is proving what the definition of insanity is. And in denial of reality.

    • Jay Reese

      What about the billions spent on infrastructure for the automobile that much of goes into the national debt due to drivers being undercharged? What about all the land taken to build more roads or widen the ones we already have. Do we have a moral duty to uphold a car-centric transportation system that is failing? The reality is no governing body is perfect and we have an obligation to support their efforts and to keep a check on their behavior.

  3. Jay Reese

    Regardless of the growing pains we are headed in the right direction. These problems are common to many Cities and are not insurmountable. The quickest way to remedy many of the problems is for people to park their cars when possible and ride the bus

    • Bright

      Sure. Have you ever relied on this city’s bus system to get to a job? Does not appear that you have. “Growing pains” don’t last indefinitely…but rationalization for failure surely seem to in this case.

      • Jay Reese

        I do not own a car and rely solely on my bicycle and the bus for transportation. While not perfect ART, supplemented with the bicycle provides access to most of the county plus Henderson County. Having the bicycle allows me to pedal away from the bus stop if for some reason the bus is late or the route canceled.

        • Bright

          Nice, and if everyone had back-up bikes, the bus would be overloaded with bikes! That’s funny to me…but kidding aside, I applaud your use of alternative transport! I hope ART continues in the positive direction it appears, and the funds don’t somehow “disappear.”

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