By Kristin Fox
At the June meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, Macon County Transit Director Darlene Asher presented two requests for additional grant funding for commissioners’ approval. The first request for funding to enhance coordination between area transits was easily approved, with the second request for funding for solar panels and improvements to the transit expansion, bus barn and parking lot failing to get board approval.
With commissioners’ approval of the grant, Macon County Transit will once again begin offering transportation to Asheville from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. The Macon County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve ConCPT grand funding for transit, providing $108,000 to cover the cost (salary plus benefits) of a full-time transit operator for two years for the Asheville route. The grant is 100 percent funded for the first two years and does not require a match from the county.
The primary goal of the ConCPT is to establish formal relationships between the transit systems for long-distance routes. The funding is provided to coordinate activities to maximize resources, gain efficiency and improve access to public transportation.
MCT plans to use the grant funding to partner with Haywood County Transportation to coordinate trips to Asheville. MCT would leave the Franklin office at 8:00 a.m. and pick up other passengers in Haywood County arriving in Asheville by 10:00 a.m. Passenger appointments will be scheduled between the hours of 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. In the afternoon, transit will leave Asheville no later than 3:00 p.m. and be back in Franklin by 5:00 p.m.
Stops in Asheville will include Mission Hospital and all the surrounding areas, the Asheville Mall, Asheville Regional Airport and Veteran’s Affairs. A round trip to Asheville cost passengers $35.00.
After the two years, the grant becomes a 50/50 match. MCT will then charge Haywood County a fee for picking up their passengers. By this point, MCT’s goal is to also have Jackson County and possibly Swain County participating, filling a bus with passengers to Asheville every day.
“Since before COVID, MCT is still down 20 percent,” said Asher. “That 20 percent is due to Clay County no longer taking our Asheville trips. When Clay County was taking our trips to Asheville that freed up an operator to do more trips locally or to another out-of-town destination. The demand is there, we just don’t have the manpower to cover it.”
Offering transportation to Asheville will be in addition to transitproviding services to Highlands, Nantahala, Sylva and other areas in Jackson County, Bryson City and Clayton, Georgia. In addition, MCT occasionally provides transportation to Duke, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte.
Asher’s second request for additional grant funding for solar panels and additional improvements to the expansion andrecently constructed awing/bus barn was not approved by commissioners. The grant request was for an additional$200,000 in 5339(b) grant funding for buses and bus facilities. The grant is an 80/20 grant with the county’s portion of $40,000.
In her request, Asher explained that the North Carolina Department of Transportation Integrated Mobility Division (Public Transportation and Bike/Ped) reached out to transit gauging interest for any other projects that MCT could use additional grant funding. The state had extra funds due to another county backing out of a project.
The majority of the money for the additional grant funding was for solar panels at a cost of $181,000. Asher told commissioners the solar panels would provide power for all of transit including the building and expansion, the propane tank, and the parking lot lights. Adding solar panels to the transit facilities would save transit $6,000 annually.
In addition, Asher stated that the solar panels would set MCT up for the future with the ongoing push for electric vehicles in the transit industry. The solar panels would give MCT the neededinfrastructure to go electric in the near future.
“We are wanting to do solar panels, because going electric in transit is coming,” said Asher. “They are already wanting us to go to electric vehicles, but we don’t have the infrastructure for that right now. If we go ahead and start doing solar now, it’s going to cut down on our electric bills and help us to be ready when we do go electric.”
“Ford is already making just a few of the transit vehicles that we currently use and are focusing more on electric vehicles, so it is around the corner,” she added. “I would just like to get a little head start if we could and get that infrastructure in place so that we’ll be ready whenever the time comes for us to go electric.”
The remaining funds from the grant funding would be for sealing, repaving, and stripping the parking lot; lighting for the awning; and window treatments, tv mount, white board and kitchen cabinets for storage in the expansion. These needed items were left off the first proposal of the expansion and awning project.
“I’m not sold on the solar, the reliability isn’t there for me,” said Vice-Chair Joshua Young. “I have a hard time seeing the return on our investment. I want to get you what you need; I am for the lights and the improvements to the parking lot, but not the solar panels.”
Chairman Paul Higdon questioned why the items weren’t in the current budget and why the lights weren’t added when the building was constructed.
“We just went through a very contentious budget, and it is difficult two weeks after we approved transit’s budget you ask for more money for the improvements to the expansion and parking lot,” said Higdon. “I thought it was all included in the original proposal. When I voted on that barn for the buses, I thought it was all included, and that is why I am negative on this.”
“At our last meeting I asked very specific questions,” said Commissioner John Shearl. “How do we design somethingwithout knowing that we need lights; it was just makes no senseto me how we can build anything without the idea that we need a way to see in and out of the dark.”
Asher stated that they originally thought the parking lot lights would work to provide lighting under the awning, but the light does not reach under the awning, and it is dark early in the morning making it hard for the drivers to see when they have todo their daily pre-trip inspections.
Commissioners voted to give MCT an additional $20,000 for the lighting as well as the parking lot and expansion improvements, but not the additional $20,000 needed for the grant match.