Who Needs A Transit Master Plan?


This is the second post in a series about Asheville’s Transit Master Plan. To readers who are familiar with how local public policy works this post’s subject might seem a bit basic.

“Of course you start with a Master Plan before you overhaul infrastructure!” those readers are probably thinking to themselves, “You can’t expect decision makers to approve systemic changes without hard data and stakeholder input first!”

But this series isn’t for the choir. It’s for those trying to understand how the coming changes to public transit were made and how these changes will effect them.

So let’s start at the beginning: Why the heck did we need a TMP in the first place? The City of Asheville shelled out about $100,000 to Nebraska-based HDR Consultants for this. What did taxpayers get?

For starters, for the first time Asheville now has a science-based, objective set of data that redefines the Asheville Transit System (ATS) to work as effective transportation infrastructure.

When City Council commissioned this plan in 2008 their were a number of objections about the TMP that are worth addressing now:

1) Why didn’t Asheville hire a local firm?

Answer: It’s illegal for local governments to give preference based on location in North Carolina. When a municipality puts out an RFP (Request For Proposals) they must award the project to the most qualified firm regardless of their mailing address.

2) Why not use city staff to write this?

Answer: A project this large would have taken staff longer to finish – thus costing taxpayers more money in the long term. Furthermore, since recommendations might have political ramifications it was important the TMP be written by an outside, impartial party.

3) Why didn’t they recruit some interns to punch this out?

Answer: That might have been an option … but it would have taken city staff oversight (eg: A dedicated staff member to oversee the project, the professor, and keep volunteers on-task.) and would probably still cost a lot of money. In the long-run it was safer to hire a professional, experienced consulting firm.

Now that the basic questions are out of the way, let’s review what HDR Consultants did and why Asheville needed a TMP:

HDR hired people to ride every route and record every boarding and alighting in the system. (Note: An “alighting” is the transit word for “getting off the bus”.) They inventoried what equipment, buildings, and personnel ATS has; studied traffic patterns, and compared best practices with other similar-sized systems. With this data HDR Consultants determined who is riding ATS, where those riders are going, and spelled out a series of realistic recommendations.

HDR Consultants were also tasked with listening to the community to determine what they wanted from public transit, and, where possible, incorporate those suggestions into the final plan. To do this they worked with city staff to host public hearings, conducted an online-survey, and met with community leaders, bus drivers, and interest groups.

Why was all this work, research, and public-input necessary? Because well-managed municipalities and elected leaders don’t invest money or political capital in vague ideas. If it’s not on paper first, it doesn’t exist to them. Voters have repeatedly called for improved public transit – and the TMP translates voter-will into an action plan.

An action plan like the TMP provides political cover for those working toward better public transit. If decision-makers and transit-advocates have to make a series of hard choices – they darn-well better have hard numbers, public-input, and a realistic long-range vision to deliver what voters want. Also, a TMP qualifies municipalities for many more grants and funding sources since the state and federal government doesn’t usually hand out money to cities unless they know exactly how it’s going to be spent. For example: As a result of the TMP, ATS was able to justify the use of 5307 funding for a marketing project.

This segues neatly into our next topic: Exactly what vision does the TMP spell out, and what changes can we expect this June?

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Full permission is granted to members of the media and bloggers to reprint these articles as they see fit as long as proper attribution is given. If they need a re-write, I’ll be happy to do so upon request.

For those who might have missed the first post in the series, here’s the link:

– pvh

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