Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: For years, I’ve watched Asheville Regional Transit buses transport passengers around the city, but I’ve never seen one completely filled with passengers. Has the city ever considered smaller buses? Is ridership still down versus pre-pandemic numbers? How much does the city contribute toward public transit each year to make up for losses incurred? And does the county contribute funding to its operation?
My answer: For about five years now, I’ve been waiting for the magical moment when the bus sitting near the Reuter Y in Biltmore Park every morning at 7 a.m. actually has a passenger on board. As in one passenger.
Real answer: Amber Wagner in the city’s Transportation Department gave us a big picture answer, and an Asheville answer.
First Wagner noted that in his book ‘Human Transit,” the renowned transit planner Jarrett Walker writes: “Every transit agency gets complaints from people who saw a bus, train, or ferry running empty or nearly empty because it looks like a waste of resources. Usually, it isn’t, especially if you see such a vehicle outside the peak period, when demand is lower, or traveling against the peak direction, or near the end of a line/route. It’s normal for loads to be low in these situations, even on very successful services.”
“Because operating cost (especially for buses) is mostly labor, a big bus carrying a few people isn’t much more expensive to run than a small bus, on which the same number of people would be a full load,” Wagner continues. “Small buses use less fuel, but this is a small part of the cost, so it’s never worthwhile to switch out a large bus for a small one to avoid running a big bus when demand is low, given the labor cost of driving the bus back to the base to exchange it.”
Wagner said all of this holds true for Asheville Rides Transit.
“Many of the routes are filled with passengers during peak periods, such as morning and evening ‘rush hours,’ Wagner said via email. “Because ART is a small system (approximately 30 buses), we have to be very intentional about the types of vehicles we invest in, including their size.”
The city needs to choose a fleet type to optimize the needs of the system, which Wagner said include:
- Being able to serve peak ridership periods.
- Having the flexibility to move buses around to different routes, as all buses need to be able to serve all routes.
- Being able to take buses out of service to perform preventative maintenance.
- Keeping the types of vehicles consistent to aid in ensuring parts are on hand and maintenance techs are skilled in the type of vehicles being used.
As far as ridership, Wagner said it is lower now than before the pandemic started in 2020, which “is consistent with nearly every transit provider across the country, if not globally.”
Ridership in 2022 was 1,485,048, Wagner said, noting that fare revenue typically makes up less than 15 percent of the overall revenue used to fund ART.
“Nearly every transit provider in the world does not fully pay for its transit service through rider fares,” Wagner said. “ART’s percentage of fare revenue to total revenue is consistent with the average transit agency in the U.S.”
For the city’s contribution to ART, I had to dig into the 2023-23 fiscal year budget, which ends June 30. Total operating cost for transit is $12.4 million, and the city lists the “general fund subsidy” for transit at $6.9 million. The city’s parking fund contributes another $1 million.
The budget notes: “Transit Fund revenue is derived from three primary sources: federal and state grant funding, local tax and fee support, and passenger charges.”
The Transit Fund receives grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and “Intergovernmental revenue” represents 30 percent of the fund’s total revenue, the budget states. An additional $800,000 in “transit-specific” and $300,000 in general use federal grant revenue came from the American Rescue Plan Act for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which started July 1.
As far as Buncombe County’s role, spokesperson Lillian Govus said, “The county does not directly contribute funding to the operation of ART’s fixed route services.”
In recent years, the county has supported costs associated with two routes that run through the county “by rescinding grant funds to the City of Asheville.”
By that, Govus explained, the county forgoes its ability to use grant funds and transfers the ability to use those grant funds to the city. This month the commissioners approved rescinding a $172,915 portion of the grant funds, meaning that amount will go to the city as the “county’s indirect funding contribution to fixed route service expenses,” Govus said.
Question: There was a public input session back in December regarding improvements to be made to the Haywood Road corridor in West Asheville. Everyone at that session was making all the right noises about pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and there seemed to be broad support for both in the local community. The project is supposed to start construction this summer, but I haven’t heard any updates since that meeting and the subsequent public survey. Has the design been finalized, and if so has it been released to the public? Is the project still on track to be completed this year?
My answer: I think I hear a new city slogan in this question: “Asheville: Making all the right noises.” I’ll run it by the tourism folks.
Real answer: Haywood Road is the main commercial corridor in West Asheville, and the idea for improvements has been kicked around for years now. The road carries a lot of vehicles daily — 14,000 a day near Louisiana Avenue, 12,500 at I-240, and 9,400 closest to Patton Avenue, according to the NCDOT’s most recent traffic count data.
Brendan Merithew, project team lead with the NCDOT’s Asheville office, said the road “is scheduled for resurfacing, which provides an opportunity to examine additional improvements.
The comment period closed in mid-January, although additional responses are still coming in.
“Transportation officials are currently reviewing the 6,516 responses submitted in-person and/or online,” Merithew said via email. “Once the public input is completely reviewed, local NCDOT officials will collaborate with stakeholders such as the City of Asheville, French Broad River MPO, Asheville on Bikes, West Asheville Business Association, and others to finalize the design.”
That design will build from plans shown at the public meeting. The final design will determine the cost estimate, Merithew said.
“As a reminder, the enhanced pedestrian crossing accommodations and ADA compliant curb ramps shown at the meeting will be part of the project,” Merithew said. “If all stays on track, NCDOT can put the project out for bidding in August or September, meeting the summer timeframe.”
The NCDOT project page for Haywood Road lists the funded cost as $7.7 million. The improvements will be done on Haywood between Patton Avenue to the west and Ridgelawn Road to the east.
Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at email@example.com or 828-337-0941.