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.
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.”