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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Testing the Brunswick Connector from Brunswick Forest to downtown Wilmington

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The Brunswick Connector runs 6 a.m. to 6 p.m, Monday through Friday.

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“Hey, bro! Can I get the next stop?” the man in the seat behind me asked the bus driver.

CONNECTING PEOPLE TO DOWNTOWN: Between Market and Princess, on Second Street, WAVE Transit’s Brunswick Connector takes people into downtown Wilmington. Courtesy photo

CONNECTING PEOPLE TO DOWNTOWN: Between Market and Princess, on Second Street, WAVE Transit’s Brunswick Connector takes people into downtown Wilmington. Courtesy photo

It was 7:07 a.m., exactly when the Brunswick Connector pulled up at the first major intersection of the Town of Leland. Four men in work uniforms, including the gentleman with the request, disembarked, and a lady dressed in medical scrubs boarded. The bus picked up speed and headed toward Navassa.

Earlier this year I promised encore readers a trip on WAVE Transit’s Brunswick Connector route to take a look at what commuting from Leland to downtown Wilmington via bus is like. The ongoing construction of the Andrew Jackson Highway has made driving from North Brunswick County into Wilmington a truly miserable experience during rush hour. I started wondering why more people weren’t taking the Brunswick Connector.  And, so, I began my own informal straw poll by asking assorted northern transplants in Brunswick Forest if they ever take the Brunswick Connector into town. Since public transit is such a big part of life in the Northeast—in a way that, culturally, hasn’t translated down here—I sort of hoped people who are used to grabbing a train or bus into major cultural areas would be more hip to that option.

These questions uniformly were met with confused blank stares.

Is this a marketing problem? I wondered.

If I were retired and lived across the bridge, the idea of grabbing a bus into downtown to meet friends for lunch, shop and take a tour would be wonderful: no parking to worry about, and if I got the bus close enough to home, it would mean all the mimosas a girl could drink. Best of all, instead of being miserable in traffic, I could read a book! How could people not be aware of this service and not use it constantly?

Last week Jock drove across the river to pick up a truckload of steel for peanut-sheller parts from the steel yard. Getting over the bridge in the morning wasn’t the problem, but timing his day to miss rush hour headed back into town was key.

“I mean, it’s not like Atlanta or anything, but it’s still awful,” he moaned.

I had been planning to take the bus for this story, but after Jock’s traffic-sitting escapade, it seemed more realistic to take the trip during the morning commute rather than around 11 a.m., when I originally planned to go.

“That’s when it is pertinent,” Jock agreed.

Game plan: Alarm set for 6 a.m. Large pot of coffee brewed.  Drive straight down Market Street to park on the corner of Market and Second, so I could see the bus coming. 

I arrived at 6:47 a.m.  At 6:52 a.m., I looked up to see the Brunswick Connector shining headlights right at me. It has been a while since I sprinted for public transit, so I made a mental check list: leave coffee in the car, grab two single dollar bills, notebook, book to read, turn headlights off (no reminder chime in a VW Bug).

Four people disembarked, the last dressed in a uniform for the Hilton.

“Good morning,” the driver said, and I exchanged the greeting. In the grayish darkness of just dawn, the bus stop on Second Street between Market and Princess is surprisingly active. The shelters and benches are filled with people in various states of waking up and getting off to work. A little away from the benches, a few people have early-morning cigarettes and riders make connections from one bus to another. The bus slowly fills with a surprising number of people out this early.

At 7:01 a.m. on the dot, we pull away from the curb and turn the corner of Princess Street. I usually see Front Street in the middle of the day when the stores and restaurants are open, or at night when the streets are packed. To see it still basically asleep with mist rising off the pavement was an oddly mystical feeling. When we swung onto the on-ramp for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, it was like I was seeing the river for the first time all over again.

However, when we took the off-ramp to Leland at 7:07 a.m., I noticed the traffic headed the other direction was stacking up and slowed to a crawl. It was the perfect cue to bring out my book—but being chauffeured around was so lovely. The passing scenery was so fascinating, I just couldn’t stop staring out the window. I don’t get out of downtown very much. It has probably been over a decade since I’ve seen Navassa. I forget how cute parts of it are; some of the new construction was a little surprising.

We stopped at both Leland Middle School and North Brunswick High School.   At almost every stop, we took on passengers. The driver greeted most people warmly and with recognition. Clearly, there are a lot of regulars.

When we finished the outlying loop and came back to the on-ramp for Andrew Jackson Highway, the driver spotted a family on the median waving at him, getting ready to dodge traffic to catch the bus. They had a baby in a stroller. He signaled that he saw them and waited for everyone to board and get the baby safely situated. In spite of all the “va et vien” and the need to acquire transfer passes, we were still two minutes ahead of schedule when we pulled into Brunswick Forest. And, yes, there was a stop at the Brunswick Village roundabout just behind the Port City Java.

We headed into the Walmart parking lot to pick up a couple more passengers and then swung back to Andy Jackson to see a wall of stopped traffic. Merging was just not happening. Entire lanes were roped off for construction. Blue lights flashed from law enforcement pulling over speeders (how could anyone speed in this mess,  I wondered).  Looking into the car windows, almost everyone we passed was on a cell phone or texting. Most cars had only one person in them, with the exception of kids en route to school.

No one looked happy as they multi-tasked their way through road rage.  I feared for our driver there was no way we were going to do this on schedule. But the man had nerves of steel: He maneuvered through the stalled traffic and over the bridge to land us in downtown Wilmington on the nose at 8 a.m.!

“Thank you for a lovely morning,”  I waved and climbed down the stairs.  It was surprising—and, frankly I needed a cup of coffee to process it all.

So the Brunswick Connector runs 6 a.m. to 6 p.m, Monday through Friday. Clearly, it is aimed at students and working people. For one fare, though, folks can travel across the bridge without the misery and headaches of fighting traffic, and won’t have to worry over parking either.

And so I ask: How is this bus not packed to capacity constantly? I think this is the no-hassle deal of the century. Frankly, if you want to improve your morning commute and not have the misery of all that traffic at the bridge, next to carpooling, this is a simple answer: Read a book, listen to some music and let someone else do the driving. The only downside is you can’t bring coffee on the bus.

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