Asheville city bus on route C on Swannanoa River Road in front of the East Asheville WalMart. / Bill Sanders / email@example.com
Paying the fare
City voters may eventually get the opportunity to weigh in on whether to increase taxes to pay for a better transit system.
Counties have the ability to levy an additional quarter-cent sales tax to pay for transit, said Asheville Transit Committee Chairwoman Julie Mayfield.
After seeing the narrow margin by which county voters approved a similar increase for building projects at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in 2011, transit advocates see little point in pushing for a countywide referendum for a transit tax, she said.
But it might make sense in a year or two to seek an increase that would apply only within the city limits and be voted on by just city residents, she said. That would require action by the state General Assembly.
In the meantime, since City Council raised property taxes last year, members have no appetite to increase property taxes again this year, she said. No one seems to pushing for a bus fare increase either.
That may mean the city’s ability to make transit improvements this year will be dependent on how much extra revenue above needed spending city officials expect.
Transit use slides
|Ridership on city transit, by fiscal years from July 1 to the following June 30:|
ASHEVILLE — Each time Tim Warren works a Sunday shift at his job in maintenance at a Tunnel Road hotel, he knows where the first $21.50 he makes will go: into the hands of cab drivers for the round trip to and from work.
Warren relies on the city bus system for transportation from his home in Hillcrest Apartments public housing just west of downtown, but city buses don’t run on Sundays, so a taxi is his only option.
This could be the year City Council finally finds the money to operate at least a reduced number of buses on Sundays, a move some members have discussed off and on for at least five years.
“That would be great,” Warren said Friday afternoon, not to mention cheaper. A one-way bus ticket costs $1.
Adding Sunday service is one of several changes in the transit system, which has 1.4 million riders a year, that a group of bus users is pressing council for. Others include making improvements to the C or crosstown route that goes from Emma to Oakley, running some buses later in the evening and giving riders more of a say in operations.
City Council members seem receptive. Improving the transit system in general and adding Sunday service in particular emerged as priorities at council’s retreat Feb. 7-8 to identify key issues for 2014.
“I think there’s a shared goal here about improved transit service, Sunday service, longer hours, fixing the C route,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said during the retreat.
Council members said decisions on transit will come as part of deliberations in spring and early summer over the budget for the city’s 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Councilwoman Gwen Wisler, council’s liaison to the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission, said Friday the extent of changes will depend on how the city’s finances look then.
“It’s all going to come down to looking at the budget,” said Wisler. “The good news is I don’t think there’s anybody on council who doesn’t think we need to allocate more funds to transit. Something’s going to happen.”
Transit advocates might think they have heard the same promises before.
Manheimer and councilmen Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith expressed strong support for improvements in the system during a 2009 candidate forum, with Manheimer and Smith specifically endorsing Sunday service.
Smith told those attending the Get There AVL forum on transportation issues that year the addition would make “Asheville more affordable over the long haul.”
Manheimer said then that, “I think this is a ‘if you build it they will come’ sort of issue. If you just stay at a middle-grade level with your service and with regard to your buses, you’re never going to get the users and ridership you need to get a profitable system and to continue it forward. You’ve got to create a system a lot of people use.”
People attending the 2013 version of Get There AVL heard similar statements.
City government has made improvements, but tight budgets have made it harder to do more, said Julie Mayfield, the volunteer head of the city’s Transit Committee.
“This time last year, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to keep Saturday service” because city finances appeared to be in such dire straits, she said. City employees had gone several years without raises before the current fiscal year.
The bus system, officially called Asheville Redefines Transit or ART, dramatically overhauled its routes, changed operating times and made other modifications in May 2012 as it implemented a new master plan.
Over the past couple of years or so, the system also started limited bus service on several holidays, increased service frequency on some routes and built bus stop shelters, Mayfield said.
But she said she understands the difficulty the city has coming up with money for pay for transit improvements. Full Sunday service would cost $847,000 a year. Adding another bus to increase service frequency on the C route would take $352,000 annually.
The $1.2 million total would represent more than a 20 percent increase in the system’s operating budget and a little more than the amount of revenue brought in by one penny of the city’s property tax, now at 46 cents per $100 valuation.
“None of these numbers are small. You can start to see why there hasn’t been movement by the city to implement the bus master plan,” Mayfield said.
An economic issue
Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics of Western North Carolina, hopes to change that. The advocacy group supports policies to improve the lot of low-wage workers and has put together an effort to called The People’s Voice on Transportation Equality.
“We need to invest in the people who are doing their best job to get themselves out of poverty,” using the bus system to get to and from work, Meath said.
“The bus system is part of our overall economy,” she said. “It brings workers to work. It brings consumers to places where they’re going to consume. Right now, we have a system that people rely on that is not working in the best way it could.”
Interestingly, many people in business agree.
Improving public transportation was the second-highest priority among 265 businesses who responded to an in-person survey conducted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce last October. About 42 percent of the businesses were in the 28801 ZIP code that includes downtown.
“That is a huge statement in terms of what it means to have a reliable employee base,” Meath said.
Carol Pederson has experienced the effects of that concern firsthand.
She believes she did not get hired for some jobs because potential employers thought her reliance on buses would make her less likely to be on time for work or because they might want her to work Sundays.
“Once I tell them I am dependent on the bus, I see this funny look come over their face ... and I never get a call back.”
More frequent service would be nice, too, she said. It takes Pederson an hour and a half to get from her South Asheville home to a temporary job at a tax preparation business in East Asheville and another hour and a half to get back.
“It’s what, a 10-minute drive?” she said.
Meath and Mayfield say stories like Pederson’s are common. About 70 percent of city bus riders are totally dependent on the system for transportation, Mayfield said.
“Many of them are probably in service jobs and retail and things like that” where low wages make it difficult to own a car, she said. Others are aged or have health issues that prevent them from driving.
Sunday service was the biggest request to the city during the process of drawing up the transit master plan and continues to be a top priority for the system and those it serves, Mayfield said.
Many riders want the service to get to work, she said. Others want to go to church or to shop or run errands — difficult tasks during the work week for someone dependent on the bus.
Coming up with $847,000 for full Sunday service would be “a pretty big lift in one year” for the city, Mayfield said, so Transit Committee members and advocates have been pushing for more limited Sunday service similar to what the system offers on holidays.
Nine of the city’s 16 routes are run on holidays, said Mariate Echeverry, city transportation planning manager.
She and Mayfield said there seems to be support on City Council to fund that type of service with limited hours on Sundays in the coming fiscal year. That would cost $321,000 a year, Mayfield said.
It is not clear whether council will take on the issue of the C route, the only route that does not stop at the Asheville Transit Center between Coxe and Asheland avenues downtown.
The route cuts through Emma, West Asheville, Biltmore Village and Oakley, serving the employment centers of River Ridge Shopping Center and Riverbend Marketplace, where a Walmart store is located.
It connects to several other bus routes along the way and was begun in 2012 as part of implementation of the master plan. However, the plan called for two buses to run on the route simultaneously, but the system only has enough money to run one, Mayfield said.
She and Meath said that using only one bus is untenable over the long term. Waiting times to transfer between the C bus and other routes are long when buses are on schedule and interminable when there is a missed connection, Meath said.
City taxpayers likely would have to pay for any operational improvements.
During the current fiscal year, the city projects that bus fares and other operating revenue, like advertising sales, will provide only $855,000 of the system’s $5.8 million operating budget.
About $2.3 million will come from state and federal grants and the rest from city sources, including a $616,875 transfer from the city’s parking fund.
Federal funding for the system has been largely flat in recent years and state funding “has been decreasing every year,” Echeverry said.
Mayfield and Wisler, the city councilwoman, said it is not reasonable to expect the bus system to turn a profit. Wisler said she does not know of one in the U.S. that does.
But Mayfield said better service would boost ridership, including people who have a choice of riding the bus or driving.
Taking the bus “decreases wear and tear on the roads, it decreases pollution, it decreases our need for parking. It addresses the needs of some of our less advantaged economically ... and that’s important,” she said. “They’re coming into our city and we need them.”