Taking the long view

Last May, Asheville Transit (now called ART, for "Asheville Redefines Transit") began implementing the city's Transit Master Plan, developed with significant public input beginning in 2008. As with any change, not everyone is entirely happy with the outcome, and some of that unhappiness has spilled out in public venom. Perhaps some explanation of the motivations for the changes, the challenges faced in implementing them, and future plans for the system will help foster a better understanding of what’s happened.

Public transit helps connect people and communities, maximizing efficiency and creating opportunities that those without transit would otherwise lack. By enabling access to jobs, groceries and doctors, ART raises employment, lowers social service costs and enhances people's ability to care for themselves and their families. More people riding the bus means less tax money spent building parking and widening roads, less air pollution and less traffic congestion.

These benefits accrue to Western North Carolina as a whole, not just city residents or bus riders. But in order to realize them, we first had to fix some long-standing problems and give the system a new skeleton capable of supporting future growth.

Fleshing out the master plan’s full vision requires money. And given the city's current budgetary limitations, Council stipulated that the first phase be implemented without additional funding. Therefore, ART's primary focus has been on these key factors: streamlining the existing service so buses can meet the published schedules; increasing frequency on major corridors to make the system more convenient for regular riders and lessen the burden of missed connections; extending service to a few new areas; expanding sidewalk and shelter construction to support safer, more comfortable access to the system; and finally, making it easier to navigate by eliminating several quirky legacies of earlier operations, such as dial-a-ride service and differences between daytime and evening routes.

Not everyone realizes that we've met these goals or thinks the changes are good. Certainly, the system overhaul has produced unforeseen challenges. But as problems have arisen, transit staff has analyzed each situation and worked to find remedies. Bus stop locations have been shifted. The E1 and S4 routes have been adjusted for greater efficiency, and extra runs have been added to E1 during peak hours. Thanks to funding from UNCA, later service has been restored to the N1 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. In response to rider feedback, the new Crosstown and North Asheville Loop routes (labeled C and N, respectively) have been modified slightly. And City Council has approved limited holiday service (excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas) on the major bus routes, starting in January.

As soon as fiscal constraints allow, ART hopes to add Sunday service (the change most requested by the public) and to reinstate more of the later-evening service that was sacrificed to provide higher frequency during the day. These expansions, however, are expensive enough that we don't see much opportunity for funding them in the near future. In the meantime, the city has purchased two higher-capacity, 35-foot buses from Gastonia at a significant discount, with an eye toward further relieving crowding on some of the more popular routes, improving frequency on others, and enabling more convenient transfers with the C and N routes.

The Transit Commission, city staff and ART employees are aware that there have been winners and losers in the first stage of implementing the master plan. Most commission members ride the bus regularly, experiencing the system firsthand. We can assure you that none of the changes were made haphazardly, incompetently or callously, and we're fairly certain that the wins far outnumber the losses.

But while the mayor and City Council are uniformly supportive of ART, it never hurts to remind them if you'd like more funding for mass transit. Getting the resources needed to create a truly great system will require solid support from a broad base: regular and casual riders, large and small employers, schools, social service agencies, medical facilities and others.

The master planning process has provided many opportunities for public input into these changes, and we continue to invite constructive criticism to improve the system as we move forward. We invite you to work with the Transit Commission to improve the rider experience and expand system funding.

— For more information, visit www.ridetheart.com, call 253-5691, or email iride@ashevillenc.gov.

Julie Mayfield and Dave Erb are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Asheville Transit Commission, a voluntary board appointed by City Council to represent citizen interests concerning the ART system.

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