BOONE — Those who are out late on weekends will notice an unusual sight starting this fall: AppalCART buses with passengers on board.
The Boone-based bus system, which offers free rides on fixed in-town routes, is taking part in a pilot program that will offer certain routes through 2:30 a.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays.
“It’s a way for us and ASU to work together and find safe late-night transportation for ASU students and locals,” AppalCART Director Craig Hughes said. “Some people work to 11 p.m., 12 a.m. and they’ll have safe transportation.”
The “night owl” route program will be implemented in late August, according to Hughes.
The first-time program is made possible by a $181,120 pilot program. Currently, the majority of in-town routes start between 6 and 10 a.m. and wrap up between 5 and 10 p.m. during the school year.
Hughes said the “night owl” routes will be extended hours for select routes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. While those routes have not been nailed down, Hughes said that AppalCART is looking at the existing Gold, Pop 105, a modified Express and modified Orange routes.
“We’ll hit our major points where we know people are going,” Hughes said.
The “night owl” route info will be finalized in July, Hughes said, and information will be given out at ASU orientations. The routes will start with the onset of the fall semester.
AppalCART ridership, which hovers around 1.9 million annually, dropped in the 2017-18 fiscal year. With the biggest revamp of routes in over 10 years implemented for this fiscal year, Hughes said that ridership has increased, though full 2018-19 data isn’t yet available. Hughes previously said that when ASU is having classes, an average day consists of approximately 12,000 trips.
“We’re a rural system that operates like an urban system,” Hughes said. “I don’t know if people realize how good of a system we have.”
Going forward, Hughes said he’s waiting for the results of the annual comprehensive service review to determine which in-town routes need to be expanded, contracted or stay the same. Those decisions will be made over the summer.
AppalCART is not planning on purchasing any new buses in 2019-20, according to the budget approved on May 20.
The $4,676,905 budget includes just over $60,000 in capital expenses for vehicle spare parts. The 2018-19 budget had over $2.5 million in capital expenditures, most of which financed the purchase of four buses.
The 2019-20 approved budget is 31.6 percent less than the 2018-19 budget, mainly due to a loss of over $487,000 in local non-match funding.
Administration and operating expenses are up 8.2 percent from 2017-18 to get employees up to $15 an hour and a 25-cent-per-hour increase for drivers, which Hughes said is to be competitive within the transportation industry.
In order to balance the budget, Hughes used $243,212 of fund balance, an increase from the $100,000 used in 2018-19.
The use of fund balance comes after the cuts from the State Maintenance Assistance Program are slated to take effect. The 26 percent cuts were made for 2018, but Hughes said the Public Transportation Division of the N.C. Department of Transportation was able to provide one-time-only funding to cover the difference.
Hughes said AppalCART is working with the North Carolina General Assembly to restore higher levels of SMAP funding. A bill that would restore SMAP funding was filed April 10. Co-sponsored by Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone), House Bill 666 would bring back funding levels across the state to affected transportation programs to the tune of over $8.5 million. The bill hasn’t moved since being assigned to committee on April 10.