Local transit faces budget issues despite recent improvements

Ian O’Brien
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Photo By Ian O’Brien
Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economic said the Asheville Transit Committee promised the advocacy group to extend evening service hours.

The Asheville transit committee postpones extending service hours to next year after going $500,000 over budget, despite rolling out route and schedule improvements this month.
“We believe they can, if the political will is there, extend evening service hours in this budget, and we are continuing to press and advocate that they do so,” said Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics, an advocacy group working with the transit committee. “This is a promise that they have made to us to work to get evening service hours and to finish the first year of the Transit Master Plan.” 
The Transit Master Plan details a myriad of improvements to the ART bus system over the course of multiple years, including the plan to extend service hours to 10 p.m. starting on Jan. 5, but that date is now being moved to as late as 2021. Residents may still see new extended hours before next year, however, according to Lisabeth Medlock, the transit committee’s chair.
“What we’re trying to do is to have a budget amendment so that we can still do the extended service hours before the end of 2020,” Medlock said.
Service hours aside, the recent changes in routes and schedules mean good news for city residents, especially as fare prices remain at only $1.
“I’m glad they even have transit because, as a college student, buying a Lyft to work is usually $7 to $10,” said Hailey Young, a UNC Asheville student who regularly rides the bus to work. She said a $10 Lyft can feel more like $20 for a college student.
Route changes include new crosstown routes, WE1 and WE2, allowing residents to travel from one side of Asheville to the other without transferring. N1 and N2 now continue their routes as S4, creating similarly transfer-free travel across the city, according to information from the city of Asheville.
With these changes and future improvements, the committee is looking to get more residents out of their cars and on the bus as well as eventually extending the transit system beyond the city area, according to Medlock.
“Most people are now moving outside the city of Asheville, so this needs to be moving more toward a regional transit and not just a city of Asheville transit system,” Medlock said.
Just Economics’ Better Buses Together campaign wants to keep the focus on the people already riding, according to Meath.
“We have to improve transit as it is for the riders who need it,” Meath said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
Improvements aside, the transit committee now considers alternative sources of funding in order to better avoid budget problems in the future.
“We’re funded out of the general fund,” Medlock said. “Funding transit out of the general fund is not the way it’s done in a lot of places.”
 Keeping up with necessary improvements will only become more difficult until a better means of funding can be found, according to Medlock.
Medlock also said cost issues mean this year’s new buses will be hybrids, rather than the electric buses that were added to the fleet last year.
“You have to have a major infrastructure to make electric buses work,” Medlock said. “We don’t have rapid chargers. Rapid chargers are almost $1 million a piece.” 
Renewable energy, while an important long term goal, isn’t the committee’s current priority, according to Medlock.
“Moving out of the bounds of the city into the county, having an efficient system, having more frequency, that’s what’s going to get people to ride the bus and increase ridership,” Medlock said.
Medlock said the committee has always intended the Transit Master Plan to be flexible.
“You can’t predict what Asheville’s going to look like in 10 years, so it’s going to be constantly reevaluated,” Medlock said.