Asheville Regional Transit Coalition Requests for Buncombe County Transit Funding
April 12, 2021
Dear Buncombe County Board of Commissioners,
The Asheville Regional Transit Coalition (ARTC) consists of local transit riders and experts, elected officials, and advocates for workers, families living in poverty, the elderly and the environment. Together, we have decades of experience implementing and advocating for public transit systems all over the country.
To make public transit run on time, all day and more often in Buncombe County, we urge the Buncombe County Commission to respond to the need for increased transit access by funding a County Transit Master Plan and restoring its paratransit subsidy for the Asheville Redefines Transit (ART) system in this year’s County budget.
Build Back Better: The Need For Transit
As Buncombe County residents continue to suffer from the severe economic setbacks of the pandemic, it is critical that the County invests in public transit as a way to make life more affordable and accessible for those who call Buncombe home.
It is well-documented that car-based transportation is a significant expense that many in our community cannot afford or struggle to afford. This crisis worsens as more and more residents are priced out of Asheville and moving to surrounding towns and rural areas. Transit is a key improvement that addresses every Community Focus Area Buncombe County has identified in its 2020-2025 Strategic Plan:
- Educated and Capable Community: Better transit has been named a priority by staff and students alike at county schools such as Reynolds and Erwin, who recognize the need for better transit to increase access to tutoring, after school activities, and other school functions.
We join advocates for older adults like AARP in calling for a better transit system that will help Buncombe County’s older population age in place while having reliable access to county-wide services. According to the most recent estimates, older adults (65 and older) comprise an estimated 19% of Buncombe County’s total population, and 46% of county residents in this age bracket live alone – representing a group that may be especially in need of transportation support services. Buncombe County’s elderly population is only expected to grow, with an estimated county-wide increase of 28,330 residents 65 and older by 2037.
- Environmental and Energy Stewardship: An efficient and reliable public transit system is key for Buncombe County to address the intertwined crises of climate change and affordability. Future development in our growing county should also be planned strategically, with consideration of potential transit hubs and routes, in order to preserve existing farmland and carbon sinks. Further, to reach Buncombe County’s adopted goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030, the County must have a plan for transitioning its fleet to 100% electric vehicles. This investigation should happen as part of a Transit Master Plan process so that a gasoline-powered fleet does not prevent the County from achieving its renewable energy goal.
- Resident Well-Being: The NC Justice Center estimates that most two-adult households in Buncombe County spend $5,820 on transportation each year – an enormous burden for families that are already juggling childcare, food, medical costs and more. Our current transit system makes it hard for many who depend on transit to get to work, school, the VA hospital, the grocery store and other critical services.
- Vibrant Economy: Counties that invest in public transportation invest in their workforce. But much of the county lacks real transit infrastructure, and in rural communities like Erwin, 48% of community members say they have missed employment opportunities due to lack of transportation. A better transit system for Buncombe County will connect residents to job opportunities and add more flexibility and ease to the schedules of working parents.
Update on Advocacy Regarding Municipal Quarter-Cent Sales Tax Authority
Currently, North Carolina law only gives counties – not municipalities – the authority to implement their own quarter-cent sales taxes. Given this restriction and Asheville’s significant and specific need for a new source of transit funding, Senator Mayfield introduced a bill this March at the NC General Assembly to expand this tax authority to include municipalities. Unfortunately, an ideological difference in Senate leadership has made it clear that this bill will not move forward.
This firm response from Senate leadership means that any quarter-cent sales tax to fund our region’s transit expansion must be introduced at the county level. Such a tax must be voted on by county residents during an election year, with the earliest option being in November 2022.
County-wide transit taxes have been approved by voters elsewhere in North Carolina in Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham and Orange counties. However, the public is unlikely to vote for a new tax for transit in Buncombe County as long as the County lacks a clear understanding of its specific transit expansion priorities and funding needs.
In light of this information, the Asheville Regional Transit Coalition urges the County to take the following actions:
1) Fund a Transit Master Plan process at the County level: Approximately $115,000
While Asheville adopted its own Transit Master Plan in 2018, this plan largely focused on transit within the city limits. A County Transit Master Plan would help meet the following goals:
- Develop expansion priorities for the City and County. Before investing further in transit, the County must first understand where increased transit service is needed in coordination with demographic growth and employment patterns. What County expansions are needed in terms of location and frequency? In other words, if the County allocated more funding to transit, where would it go?
- Prioritize additional transit connections between County and City routes. For transit to be fully accessible for all, the County must understand where and how new County routes can help residents commute. This would entail exploring transportation options for rural portions of the County, as well as a Park-and-Ride option to allow County residents to make greater use of Asheville Rides Transit (ART) services.
- Determine strategies to promote ridership. As many federal sources for transit funding are tied to ridership numbers, building ridership will allow the County to rely on increased and more diverse sources of funding for transit expansion. This will also help create widespread awareness of our growing public transit system, ensuring that it is an accessible option for all in Buncombe County who choose to ride it as we become a more transit-integrated community.
- Explore the feasibility of merging the City and County transit systems. This concept could help create a more efficient public transit network while reducing the costs associated with running transit and other administrative burdens. However, more research is needed to assess the benefits of a combined system.
- Explore County funding for a fare-free ART system. The concept of fare-free transit has grown in popularity, and has been in place by necessity during the COVID-19 crisis. However, this concept has not been fully assessed, and its repercussions should be understood at the County level before prioritizing fare-free over route expansion and frequency.
Why a Transit Master Plan is Necessary In Addition to a Comprehensive Plan
A Transit Master Plan will identify the most efficient and logical transit expansions to best support affordability in Buncombe County over the next decade. It is more specific and concrete in scope than a Comprehensive Plan, and while complementary to the overarching Comprehensive Plan, it must be treated and funded separately.
2) Restore the County Subsidy For Paratransit: $1.3 Million Per Year
In order for the City to operate a fixed route transit system, a complementary paratransit system must be in place. As the County runs Mountain Mobility, in the past the County has provided paratransit service to the City at a reduced rate and subsidized the costs. Over the past couple years, however, the County has reduced and then discontinued the subsidy for paratransit service within the City, creating an additional strain on Asheville’s already underfunded transit system. This decision is out of line with the County’s stated goal of expanding paratransit services named in the Resident Well-Being focus area of its 2025 Strategic Plan, and has made it even more difficult for the City to fund expanded transit for the residents who need it.
The current fiscal year budget for paratransit was $1.7 million, but there have been significant cost-savings as a result of lesser use during the pandemic and a new contract rate for the County. The estimated expense for FY 21 is $750,000, while the projected budget for FY 22 is $1.3 million under the new contract rate.
The association between transportation and medical access is clear: recent national studies showed that 25% of missed medical appointments were caused by transportation barriers and that patients with transportation issues were twice as likely to miss filling prescriptions compared to those without that barrier. As the body of government that typically focuses on health and human services – and that has a significantly larger budget than the City of Asheville – it is imperative that the County restore this annual subsidy to connect county residents to the health and human services they need without putting additional pressure on the City’s transit budget.
Immediate Funding Opportunity For Transit: American Rescue Plan Act of 2021
The $1.9 trillion stimulus package recently signed into law by President Biden created a significant influx of funds for local governments. For its share, Buncombe County is estimated to have received $51 million. Given this recent and extensive increase in funding and the relatively low cost of the above items, we call on the County to allocate funding for a county-wide Transit Master Plan and to restore its subsidy for paratransit in this year’s budget.
Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we invite you to reach out to our coalition with any questions.
The Asheville Regional Transit Coalition
Michael Wackerly, AARP NC Mountain Region
Rev. Jeff Jones, Better Buses Together & Asheville Transit Committee
Greg Borom, Children First/Communities in Schools
Vicki Meath and Carmen Ybarra, Just Economics of WNC
Eliza Stokes, MountainTrue
Sam Harben, Sierra Club WENOCA
Cat Turbyfill, Master of Public Health (MPH)
Sabrina Alvarado, Warren Wilson College
NC Senator Julie Mayfield
Asheville City Councilmember Kim Roney
Buncombe County Commissioner Parker Sloan
Contact: Vicki Meath, Director of Just Economics
E: email@example.com P: 828-301-7291