Reality Check: What new Asheville Redefines Transit management company means for you

McDonald Transit took over managing and operating ART at the start of October. (Photo credit: WLOS)

A new company took over managing and operating Asheville's transit system. The city's transportation director says the new contract with McDonald Transit lets the city hold the management company more accountable with higher standards and penalties if they're not met.

The city didn't just select a new management company, it also changed the business model. The city reimbursed the former management company for all of its expenses. If a bus was down, the city paid the same amount. Now, the payment structure can fluctuate based on how many buses are running. The city will pay a fixed amount per month plus an amount for revenue hours.

ART riders are quick to point out what can be better.

"I'd like them to run a bus on Sunday through Shiloh and Martin Luther King," one rider said.

"The buses being on time," another rider requested.

"I'd like to see the bathrooms cleaned. They're nasty," said a third rider.

They also said ART needs more drivers.

Diane Allen has operated an ART bus for more than a decade. She's also head of the local transit union.

"Change is different. It's hard, but it's been a long time coming, and we look forward to the changes," Allen said.

Drivers have been asking for a change for some time. News 13 reported on it almost two years ago, when a driver detailed some issues.

"Some buses not going, because we're short a driver or buses. It just seems like they don't care," Ernest Weston told WLOS in November 2015.

Drivers then complained about dangerous levels of overtime and questioned if buses were fit to be on the road. Asheville's transportation director expects the change to be good for riders.

"They should not see anything get worse, number one. Hopefully, in a very short time, they'll begin to see improvements, and, as that happens, we're very confident those passengers will spread the word and we should see an uptick in ridership," Asheville transportation director Ken Putnam said.

Allen said drivers and garage employees are staying, but McDonald did make some personnel changes.

"The only thing that means for me is that after 44 years, I don't have a job anymore," Ronnie Payne said.

For the last 27 years, Payne worked as the ART maintenance director. He survived other changes in management, so he thought his job was safe. Just days before taking over, Payne said McDonald told him he would not be staying on. Payne said he was told he could apply for a supervisor job, which Payne said he wasn't qualified for.

"I've not allowed myself much time to think about it. There's been a couple sleepless nights. I'll tell you that. I guess reality will kick in here pretty quick," Payne said.

McDonald's parent company declined to respond to a question about when Payne learned he would not be staying on.

"RATP Dev North America does not discuss or share information directly related to employee matters," the company said in a statement.

McDonald installed its own management, including a new maintenance director. At 60, Payne said he's not ready to retire and now needs to find a new job.

"It's a hard pill to swallow," said Payne.

Allen looks forward to having a new company managing ART.

"I think it's for the better," said Allen.

McDonald Transit also runs Charlotte's bus system. Part of Asheville's contract requires a new customer complaint system, with the complaints logged by city employees. If complaints are not responded to, the city can penalize McDonald.

The company said, in a statement, it looks forward to operating ART.

"RATP Dev North America is in the first days of a four-year service agreement where we will directly supervise ART’s daily operations for the Fixed Route bus services. Our goal over this period is to improve, optimize and modernize the fixed-route bus services that more than 1.4 millions riders in the City of Asheville rely on each year. RATP Dev will seek to bring not just our expertise operating bus lines around the world, but our success in operating and managing fixed-route bus services in the state of North Carolina as well."

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