Looking to expand bus services, Asheville City Council wants new tax

As it plans to expand bus service, the Asheville City Council is looking at a new quarter-cent sales tax to pay for it.

City staff gave an update to Council Tuesday on the timeline and the analysis of the costs.

"Not only is it a priority for Council, we know it's a priority for the community - it's definitely a priority for staff," said City Manager Debra Campbell. "If it were easy - I promise you - it would've been done."

Last year, the Council approved big changes to the Transit Master Plan:

The city’s new Transit Master Plan (avl.mx/53y), set for approval at Asheville City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, July 24, aims to shift those statistics in a big way. The ambitious proposal would increase bus service hours by 44 percent starting in fiscal year 2020, construct a new $50 million operating facility by 2024 and double the current fleet by 2029. By the end of the next decade, operating and maintenance costs for the expanded transit services are projected to cost the city over $21 million annually, well over twice the fiscal year 2019 Transit Fund budget of roughly $8.5 million.

Staff has also been working on route reconfiguration and improving on-time performance.

Expanding the bus service so dramatically means more buses, drivers, maintenance workers, customer service, dispatchers, and security officers for the transit center.

How to pay for it?

Local county governments are already empowered by the state to ask voters for a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to transit system expansion throughout the county.

"We need a dedicated source," said Council member Vijay Kapoor. "That is really the only way the numbers are going to work."

Mayor Esther Manheimer said a countywide sales tax would generate about $13 million annually, and would be best "bang for the buck."

But the City Council sees this mechanism as problematic - because it runs through the County Commission.

"I welcome the folks who are emailing us on the need to have transit and prioritize transit, but if you're not emailing the County Commissioners at the same time you're emailing us, I think you're missing an opportunity to advocate for what we've eventually going to need," said Kapoor.

Going through the Buncombe County Commissioners will be difficult, said Council member Julie Mayfield.

"It's really not a possible funding source at this time, due to the politics in the county - both on the Commission and in the electorate - and given the fact that the county did not perhaps do what they should have done with their last special sales tax," she said.

Mayfield predicts it will be easier to get the state government to let cities adopt transit sales taxes, rather than go through Buncombe County.

Mayor Manheimer applauded Mayfield for bringing up the subject in a discussion with Governor Roy Cooper.

Regardless, of how the City Council proceeds, if the bus system is to be expanded as proposed, the City Manager says more money will be required.

"Whether it's the state, the county - doesn't matter to us," she said. "We just need more revenue. It is so difficult to try to build the kind of transit system that we want in this community, on the backs of a parking fee and the general fund. We just don't have enough resources."

You can watch the presentation and discussion here:

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