Transit Master Plan proposes big changes for Asheville’s bus service

Transit Master Plan 2020 Map
HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE: Asheville's Transit Master Plan proposes a new route in West Asheville, as well as extended service hours throughout the network, as the first of many ambitious changes. Screen capture from the city of Asheville

If a resident of Asheville has a choice about whether to ride the bus, that person probably doesn’t. According to a rider survey undertaken in December 2017 and January 2018 by volunteers from Just Economics and the People’s Transit Campaign, less than a third of the city’s bus users take public transit voluntarily. The 2016 federal American Community Survey found that fewer than 2 percent of employed Ashevilleans commute by bus, with over three quarters driving alone.

The city’s new Transit Master Plan (avl.mx/53y), set for approval at Asheville City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, July 24, aims to shift those statistics in a big way. The ambitious proposal would increase bus service hours by 44 percent starting in fiscal year 2020, construct a new $50 million operating facility by 2024 and double the current fleet by 2029. By the end of the next decade, operating and maintenance costs for the expanded transit services are projected to cost the city over $21 million annually, well over twice the fiscal year 2019 Transit Fund budget of roughly $8.5 million.

Elias Mathes, transit planning manager for the city, says these bold changes are needed to make Asheville Redefines Transit a viable alternative to automobile commuting for the city’s future. A previous version of the plan, developed in 2009 and adopted in 2010, no longer reflected the state of Asheville’s transit needs. “Development patterns have changed, traffic patterns are different, and all of that has changed the ways we can provide transit,” he says. “We really had to take a comprehensive look at what the needs of the people are for public transit and if how we’re providing them now is serving those needs.”

Increased investment in the system will boost the coverage area, provide service into the late evening and increase the frequency of buses along key routes. “At that point, people are going to run out of excuses for not using the bus,” Mathes says.

Getting there

The Transit Master Plan represents months of collaboration between city staff, citizen stakeholders and consultants from Florida-based Tindale Oliver (which received $115,161 for its work on the project). Through workshops, online and on-bus surveys, discussion groups and public meetings, the project team received extensive input about what problems exist for current riders and what barriers keep prospective users from getting onboard.

In a staff report, Mathes lists four main takeaways from public engagement that informed the plan. Community members emphasized on-time performance and overall system reliability as crucial to successful public transit. Reducing between-bus transfers was also important, particularly for passengers with disabilities. Increasing access to areas with few current bus routes and maintaining access to necessities such as groceries and medical care rounded out the key goals identified by the public.

The Transit Master Plan also considers the city’s plethora of related plans, including the Asheville in Motion Plan and Living Asheville: A Comprehensive Plan for Our Future. While these previous documents outlined broad goals and aspirations for the city’s transit system, the new plan takes a more granular approach. “The Transit Master Plan is focused on specific steps that need to be taken to attain those goals,” Mathes explains.      

Members of the city’s Transit Committee, an advisory board for the Multimodal Transportation Commission, praised the responsiveness of the planning process. “I’ve been involved in city politics and plans for about 3 ½ years now, and this is one of the first times I’ve not only gotten to participate, but actually seen it work,” says committee member Kim Roney. “Community engagement was taken very seriously, not only by the staff but also the consultants.”

Roney points to changes made between the first draft of the plan, released in late March, and the final draft being presented on Tuesday. She says that initial effort removed the Haw Creek and Kenilworth neighborhoods from transit service and created serious inconveniences for residents of the Pisgah View Apartments public housing neighborhood. After the Transit Committee offered feedback, the project team worked out a solution that preserved service while still improving on-time performance.

Transit Committee Chair Adam Charnack agreed that the process has been fair while acknowledging the difficult tradeoffs inherent in transit planning. “It’s very difficult to balance the needs of providing bus service everywhere with the need of providing really good service in the places we want to provide really good service,” he says. “They did a good job of maximizing the community benefits.”

Charting the course

The plan’s most dramatic recommendations would be implemented in its first year, currently scheduled for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1, 2019. All routes would run until 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 8 p.m. on Sunday, extensions of roughly two hours over existing service times. Additionally, at least one route along Asheville’s main north, south, east and west corridors would run through midnight on weekdays.

Those extra hours could make all the difference for employees working schedules that differ from the standard 9-to-5. “We’re going to be able to reach those workers who say they can get to work on the bus but can’t get home because the bus stops at 7:30 or 8,” says Roney. “Now they’ll be able to get to work and back.”

West Asheville will see an entirely new route, WPVA, that connects the Pisgah View Apartments to downtown. Besides directly serving a low-income community with a need for public transit, the change will boost the frequency of buses along Haywood Road to once every 15 minutes, which Mathes says could transform how people use the system.

“If you’re standing on any section of Haywood Road going out to State Street and you’re trying to get into downtown, you really don’t even need to know the route schedules or which route you’re trying to catch,” Mathes explains. “It really lowers the bar of having to understand the system and the details of the schedule and it lowers the wait time.”

The following years of the plan call for similar increases in frequency along major corridors, including Patton Avenue and Tunnel Road, through a combination of new routes and additional buses. “That has the potential to really change the perception of what buses can mean in Asheville as something that the general population can really depend upon and start to build their lives around,” says Charnack.

Crosstown routes, which would not require riders to transfer on their way through downtown, are also proposed. While Mathes says Asheville’s topography prevents the city from completely eliminating the ART station as a transfer hub, the proposed east-west and north-south crosstown routes would pass through a new transfer point at Pack Square. A free downtown shuttle, to be implemented in fiscal year 2025, would circulate riders from that point to the ART station, parking garages and entertainment areas.

Footing the fleet?

With higher levels of service, however, come higher expenses. Operating and maintenance costs for the Transit Master Plan’s first year are estimated at $10.6 million, more than $2 million over the same costs in this year’s budget. First-year capital expenses will include two new buses at $860,000 each — as well as $90,000 for a study about where and how to build an estimated $50 million maintenance and administrative facility.

Mathes says that the ART’s current garage, built in 1971 and located at 360 West Haywood St., is nearing the end of its federally established 50-year service life and will need to be replaced regardless of the plan’s approval. He estimates that a new facility would require 8-10 acres of land but does not yet know where it might be located.

Although Mathes emphasizes that staff will look to build away from the city’s center to avoid high land prices and competition with affordable housing, he notes that calculating the optimal placement is tricky. “If we locate the facility farther away from downtown, we also have to factor in the distance that buses have to drive every day to get from that facility,” he says. “If you look at that cost over a 50-year lifespan, that can definitely add up.”

After expected federal funding covers 80 percent of the facility’s cost, the city’s share of the bill will be approximately $10 million. Mathes says his staff will examine every available option for funding, including federal grants and partnerships with Buncombe County, but he doesn’t rule out additional taxes or bond issues. “That’s a determination Council’s going to have to make,” he says.

Once the new garage is in place, expenses will grow at a much more gradual pace. Operating and maintenance costs will increase by roughly $1 million per year from fiscal 2023 onward, while the fleet will continue to add buses through 2029. The plan calls for a peak fleet of 36 vehicles with 16 spares for a total of 52.

Fare thee well

The Transit Master Plan is more cautious about another monetary issue for the system: fare-free transit. Eliminating fares would have comparatively little impact on ART finances; less than 10 percent of bus funding, an estimated $720,000 in fiscal 2019, comes from ticket and pass sales. Mathes says the primary obstacle to fare-free service is instead the potential overcrowding and on-time performance issues generated by increased ridership.

Rather moving to a completely fare-free policy, as recommended by the People’s Transit Campaign and other groups, the plan suggests a trial of fare-free weekends for the first year to assess the impact of changes on the system. At the conclusion of the trial, Mathes and his staff would then have real-world data to inform Council’s decision about fares. “We may do that and say, ‘we were being overly concerned about overcrowding,’ and [Council] may decide to go fare-free much quicker than they would have otherwise,” he says.

Roney disagrees with this incremental approach. She says that overcrowding would likely not be an issue on all but the busiest east-west routes, which will already see increased bus frequency under the new plan. “If the No. 1 argument is that we don’t want too many people riding the bus, then I think that’s a foolish reason not to consider fare-free,” Roney says. “I don’t know a single person in this town who doesn’t see traffic, parking and/or pollution as a problem, so I say let’s get more people on the bus.”

Charnack, however, says the fare-free debate may be missing the larger point about public transit. “People aren’t riding the bus because it’s not a service that comes often enough and that people can rely upon,” he says. “Those are the two things that we need if we actually want to shift the perception and shift people’s way of getting around.”

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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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35 thoughts on “Transit Master Plan proposes big changes for Asheville’s bus service

  1. jason

    I fail to see how dumping a ton of money into a system that is obviously not wanted here is a good decision. People do not take the bus if they have ANY other mode of transportation. Whether that is bike, walking, car, motorcycle, scooter, camel, horse, dog sled, etc. NOBODY likes riding the bus. It’s a terrible experience that I hope nobody ever has to endure.

    • luther blissett

      Mighty white of you to speak on behalf of everyone.

      The elephant in the room for the city’s transit plans is inevitably “the city that’s not the city”. While the master plan discusses link-ups with Mountain Mobility services for Enka/Candler, Woodfin and Weaverville, a flex service for Reynolds, and park-and-ride in south Asheville, that still leaves the question of how to deal with shifts in development that put affordable housing in lower-density parts of the county that are difficult to connect with transit routes.

      • Jay Reese

        Exactly. Proper development reduces the need for people to travel as much thus making the system easier to operate.

      • Sandy DeMicco

        I would ride the bus if getting to the stop in my wheelchair was easier.

    • Lulz

      LOL but those loonly leftist need a study to validate this farce. One would think spending so many millions would facilitate the need for these clowns to actually use the system for a year or so to gain first hand knowledge on how it operates. Ah but that’s like actually doing a job for which anyone with half a brain can see these progressive goons don’t do. Work, pffffft that’s for serfs. We elitist windbags who only care about perceptions and praise from like minded fools. We’ll spend, spend, spend, on what we paid for these studies conclude. But actually serve the taxpayer, the bus rider, and everyone else? We got protest to attend and fluff to receive.

      You support these crony scumbags dude. Don’t matter what they call themselves or what their job titles or educational background is. They are too good to even take the time to use the system that they want to change. And have absolutely no clue about what they’re doing.

      Proud democrat sheep.

      • Jay Reese

        Lulz please quit making this and every story a political issue. How about you step away from the keyboard and run for office.

    • Jay Reese

      While some Asheville residents must drive, there are many more that could choose to park their car and use the bus. Driving is a habit and like all bad habits it can be changed with a little intestinal fortitude and proper time management. If one needs motivation, simply doing a little research will reveal the devastating effects of automobile use on our society. A cursory investigation would quickly expose the tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries every year due to automobile crashes. It would open your eyes to the billion animals killed every year on our roadways and to the environmental destruction caused by fuel emissions and habitat loss from road construction. You would also begin to realize sitting in your car for hours everyday is making you fat and weak.

      Cities around the world are slowly realizing the automobile is an unnecessary burden on the community and have begun taking measures to reduce the need for driving. They are beginning to unravel the mess created by a hundred years of car centric infrastructure design. Fortunately our City Council has joined this growing chorus of people wanting active transit alternatives to driving. Now it is up to the rest of you to do your civic duty and leave your car parked once in awhile and opt for an alternative means of transit.

      Jay Reese

      • Lulz

        LOL I don’t see cars with NC tags downtown. I do see the streets clogged by tourist lulz.

        LOL civic duty? What are you going to do, send people to the gulags if they don’t?

        I like your thought on showing the effects of cars. Can we do the same for abortion?

        • luther blissett

          “I don’t see cars with NC tags downtown.”

          Eye exams are relatively cheap.

          • Lulz

            LOL I didn’t say NC tags. And if they are NC tags, are you sure they’re local? Again, why do you want to punish locals while tourist pay nothing?

          • luther blissett

            “LOL I didn’t say NC tags.”

            LOL don’t micturate on our legs and tell us it’s raining.

        • Jay Reese

          We already know the positive effects of the legal removal of fetal tissue. But we are not talking about the death of some cells we are discussing the number one killer of human beings under 18.

          The origin of the automobile has no bearing on the infrastructure design. All that matters is people choosing to drive everywhere instead of choosing an alternative when possible.

          No need for Gulags in a Capitalist system all we need to do is get the pricing right for using the roads and the people will naturally chose the appropriate mode share. By charging more to use the roads people will find cheaper alternatives. But what is wrong with accessing your behavior and seeing how it affects your community. And as it stands choosing to drive alone in a gas powered automobile is not sustainable and is a major cause of many of our societal ills. Is your desire to ride alone in an airconditioned box with music more important than another’s desire to breathe clean air and to walk without the fear of being run over? What about the poor who need to travel but can’t afford to utilize the automobile centric system we currently have? Roads are meant to move people not just cars.

    • Jay reese

      The same goes for dumping trillions into an antiquated auto centric transportation system. We can no longer afford to subsidize the individuals selfish desire to ride alone in such a destructive machine. We can no longer afford the health cost and environmental damage directly attributed to people’s driving habits. In the long run active transit is cheaper

      • Not bright, no worries

        Who would pay for the upkeep of the roads you use now?

        • boatrocker

          The tiny sliver of tax dollars that don’t overwhelmingly fund the military
          or whiny entitled Baby Boomer Social (Ahhhhh socialism except when grey haired folks draw off it it) Security?

        • Jay Reese

          The system would be paid for by the user fees determined by how much your mode choice affects the system. A just system would charge more for using the road during peak hours or to drive downtown. It would also charge the driver per mile traveled in lue of the gas tax. Cyclist would pay the least, given they do not take up much space nor cause much damage to the infrastructure. As it stands now the user fees you pay do not cover the cost of road repair and construction and so tax money must be diverted from other sources to cover the cost of your mode choice.

          • Lulz

            Do you tax the toursist who impact the roads the most? What about delivery vehicles? Trash trucks? You place the burden on someone who uses their car for less time than others who do. How are you going to explain to someone who travels 30 miles each day to get to work that they should ride the bus or walk? And tax them per a mile as well lulz. And then what do you do when the only people working Downton all have Tennessee tags on their vehicles? In other words they live here but have their cars registered out of state like certain people do that get around the system.

          • Not bright, no worries

            Who decides what affects the system the most. A young parent taking their sick child to the doctor at “peak time” gets charged more to use the road. What about the people just passing through town? You do realize there a 2 major interstates that pass right through Asheville. Toll roads? While I agree something should change, start with road usage registration. The bike you use on public roads should be subject to a tax. You should pay to use the road like everyone else. Asheville is in the mountains, inside a very hilly Buncombe County surrounded by 660 square miles. Riding a bike, for some, can be a option for daily life. However, the delivery drivers of all goods and services, the police, fireman, and first responders, school buses, repairmen and women, and countless others who depend on their vehicles to do their job might disagree with your “just system”.

          • Lulz

            All this does is punish people who live within the city limits. Why would anyone pay a toll to come to work downtown? And why do tourist get to continue the clog the streets and pay nothing while residents get stuck with the bill? They are by far the biggest impact to traffic here. Most people who drive to work downtown park their cars during the day. He assumes that less residents who drive means that the downtown streets will empty. Wrong. It means that there are that many more spaces in parking garages for tourist to use. In the end the city becomes more elitist as only those who can afford to pay to live here do. And as it becomes increasingly more difficult to get around, people won’t put the effort to come here at all.

            Continuing to ignore the impact that tourist put on the city while expecting those that live here to pay for it is insane.

            Oh and bikes should be taxed at $100.00 a year.

        • Jay Reese

          The user fees collected from drivers does not cover the cost of road construction and repair and so the money must be subsidised from other tax sources

          • Not bright, no worries

            Calling people names solve nothing. You ride on your bike on publicly financed infrastructure , then get mad because we use said infrastructure. While you make valid points, you get no where with reasonable people acting like a 12 year old. Get some skin in the game before you act all high and mighty.

          • Jay Reese

            Not Bright I put skin in the game every day I ride my bicycle in traffic with your killing machines. I put skin in the game every time I wait at the bus stop for a ride and have to deal with the weather. I choose to do these things because it helps all of us and I waste my time debating on social media trying to entice more people to park their cars and choose an alternative. We all ride on public roads but the thing is my bicycle causes no damage to the roads and takes up a fraction of the space your ride does. When I am sitting on the bus with 20 other people that is 21 less cars on the road blocking the way of those that must drive or are to lazy to use an alternative. If people would stop commenting ignorant statements I wouldn’t have to call them names.

  2. Bright

    This sounds great, as do all grandiose schemes that end up costing taxpayers, and have much less given back than promised. In the interest of the riders who depend on the bus and have been suffering the vagaries of using ART thus far, what about NOW? We have been limping along paying fares for unreliable (the reasons well-explained of course) bus service and dumps for bus stops. Help is needed currently, not in 2020. Any plans to give more reliable bus service before then???? “Operational” costs can’t be that expensive when there’s only 50% actual “operation.” Thanks for the effort, and good luck with the city and its otherworldly opinion of what riders need.

    • Lulz

      LOL they need studies. Problem is they have no first hand experience and yet are experts. More waste, more cronyism, and more fluff.

      When city council and the employees of the city use the bus to conduct business, then you can say you’re doing something. As it stands now, these people are doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Insanity but we’re talking about democrats here. Nothing applies to them.

      • Jay Reese

        Studies are an important part of the process and save money and time in the long run. The transit company also operates the system in Charlotte so it seems they have some experience. While I agree it’s BS the Council members do not use the system enough it seems their hearts and minds are in the right place on this issue. They have committed resources and the willingness to insure Asheville has a balanced transportation system suited for all users, not just cars. Their political affiliation has nothing to do with it

        • Lulz

          LOL oh their hearts are in the right places but their hands are in everyone else’s pickets lulz.

        • Lulz

          LOL if you’re comparing Charlotte to Asheville then your arguments are nil. Charlotte doesn’t depend on tourist to come to downtown and place the price of it on those that live here.

        • Bright

          “…Council members do not use the system enough it seems their hearts and minds are in the right place on this issue. They have committed resources and the willingness…” It seems their hearts and minds are in the right place?? Their hearts and minds, and our money. As ever…all froth and watered-down beer. The so-called preplanning in Aville has consistently proven to be a scheme to get money up front. When it comes time to put the rubber to the road…oh my, all of a sudden (and predictably), “We need more money.” These people done lost all of the trust residents had in them. As it is, we just pay or go to the pokey…and shake our heads at the insults on our intelligence. No class.

          • Lulz

            Exactly. There’s a cult of ignorance around here. One where the government can do no wrong. And those that are the most vocal in its support, work the least. Sacrifice nothing and don’t hold real jobs.

            We don’t go to the pokey for not paying property taxes. We lose our property.

        • luther blissett

          The transit plan covers how the bus system is currently used based on where people get on and off the bus: to get downtown, and for the VA, the big Goodwill, the big Walmart and MAHEC. That tells its own story. A large proportion of bus users have disabilities.

          I’m not sure one is meant to get “first hand experience” of being disabled. Maybe poke out an eye or chop off a leg?

          • Bright

            I ride (or try to depend on) the bus every day to and from the VA Hospital. I work there, and have for the past 6 years. I live 1 1/2 miles from said hospital. Unequivocally no! The busses will very frequently just NOT show up! I have the “bus ap” on my phone, and many times the map shows the bus in transit toward the VA, but then driver cuts the route short, and never shows up at the hospital! I have called the bus station, and been told repeatedly that they don’t have enough busses or some are broken down. So in reply to your mandate that regular service is offered to the places you list, you know not of what you write. Riders beware.

  3. John Penley

    As a frequent ART rider I have observed that the buses on many routes are, during peak hours in the morning and afternoon ,full and often people have to stand. Especially the buses to West Asheville Haywood Road. Those who never ride public transport have no idea that for whatever reason people are using ART over the last few years many more do everyday.

    • Bright

      You are correct. Read my reply above, thanks. People want desperately to ride the busses, but find that the inconsistency of service can put their jobs in jeopardy. I’m fortunate to have a decent supervisor who understands this, and many supervisors at the VA accommodate the employees who ride public transit…others riders are not so fortunate. As I see it, everyone is trying to make the busses viable…EXCEPT the city “managers” who won’t cooperate because they fail to manage our money correctly. They are the flies in the ointment. Riders need help now!

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