The City of Asheville has unveiled three new programs aimed at increasing bus ridership in the city to help address air pollution, parking and traffic congestion problems. Council members Bryan Freeborn and Brownie Newman hosted a July 11 community meeting to present the city's plan.
The first piece of the plan has already begun, with six evening routes that reach 45 percent of city residents, running from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. "In every transportation forum or public discussion we have held, evening routes are the number-one request from residents," Newman told the audience.
In order to encourage first-time riders, the buses will be fare-free on all routes, Aug. 14 to Nov. 11. According to Newman, other cities have used this ploy to get folks on board and a high percentage continue to use transit systems after fares resume.
Transit and Parking Director Bruce Black told the audience, "During the Hurricane Katrina gas shortage, our ridership increased tremendously, and many of those newcomers continued to ride the bus after the crisis passed."
The third incentive plan involves partnership with employers, dubbed the Pass-Port program. Businesses of any size can sign up to receive bus passes for employees. The cost to the business is 49 cents per ride, versus the regular cash price of 75 cents. It is hoped that this will provide an attractive benefit for employees, a lower-cost alternative to provision of parking spaces. The city already furnishes passes to its own employees and is particularly keen on including large employers such as Buncombe County in the program.
A representative of the Grove Park Inn said that his company is enthusiastic about the new transit plans, despite the fact that the new evening routes do not directly serve their location. He said the Grove Park will institute a shuttle service to ferry employees to transit stops.
Newman, Freeborn and Black also outlined numerous improvements currently underway including route information signs at bus stops, shelters, new route maps and retrofitting of all 18 large diesel buses with pollution-control gear. The retrofit, being done for free by Caterpillar International, will reduce particulate pollution by one ton per year per bus, or 18 tons annually. Black said, "Five new buses, on order now, will already be equipped with the anti-pollution devices." He also noted that the latest research shows that the new diesel buses deliver more health benefits per dollar than natural gas buses – which offer slightly reduced emissions but with a big increase in purchase and operating costs.