On October 21, the New Hanover County Commissioners voted to give Wave Transit notice that the county would terminate its contract with them, effective July 1, 2021. The vote was three to two, with Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple dissenting against Julia Olson-Boseman, Woody White and Patricia Kusek. The decision would reduce funding for Wave by about $330,000, when the transit system is already struggling with a $750,000 shortfall. The motion was put forward without it being on the agenda.
Vice-chairwoman of the New Hanover County Commissioners Julia Olson-Boseman explains, “My motion was to put the city on notice that they need to do a better job managing public transportation. Wave has come to the county twice this year and asked for more money for what I think is primarily a municipal function. I support public transportation in highly populated areas, but I don’t support increasing fees so county residents pay for it. The city has the ability to levy a fee [on] cars to pay for Wave, but they have refused to do this and keep looking to us to make the hard decisions for them.”
“The City of Wilmington began this as a municipal service years ago,” Commissioner Woody White says.
Wave is the name adopted in 2002 by what was then the Wilmington Transit Authority. In 2003 the transit and New Hanover Transportation Services merged, and in 2004, Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority (CFPTA) was formed. It continues to use the Wave name.
“The [city] should take it back over and run it more efficiently,” White adds.
It has been a year of highs and lows for Wave. On one hand, there’s good news of the expected opening of a new multi-modal transportation center and downtown transfer station between Third and Fourth street in the Brooklyn Arts District. It would replace current operations on Second Street between Princess and Market. The scheduled winter opening is a step toward achieving regional transportation goals that have been discussed here for more than a decade.
“[Wave] will tweak a number of routes when the new multi-modal center is opened, which will help,” Wilmington City Council Member and CFPTA Board Member Paul Lawler says. “Its new multi-modal center has an attractive design that will help make the bus more appealing to choice riders.”
Lawler is hopeful the expansion of the downtown trolley route will improve service and increase ridership as well.
On the other hand, Wave Transit has long grappled with a funding crisis that does not have a clear resolution. The vote by the New Hanover County Commissioners to withdraw the contract came as a serious blow.
“Wave had no knowledge of the action taken prior to Monday’s meeting, as it was not discussed or included as an agenda item,” wrote Albert Eby, Wave’s executive director, in an email to encore. “Once we have a more thorough understanding of the action taken by the New Hanover Board of Commissioners, we will share our plans with the community.”
The city government didn’t see the termination of the Inter Local Agreement [ILA] governing Wave either. “Several commissioners made it clear they had questions about Wave and its direction,” Lawler confirms, “however, I thought there would be more time to discuss the options and point out positive steps the agency is taking to improve service. I had no warning they would adopt an ambiguous motion to withdraw from Wave.”
Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes wasn’t totally surprised, though she was disappointed. The changes will be challenging.
“We have about 20 months to figure it all out,” Haynes notes. “The city will continue to provide public transportation. We have paid the major part of local funding anyway. Sadly, it may become a city-only bus service.”
That would mean no public bus service to the VA center, CFCC’s northern campus, or the government services out on Division Drive, which include the jail. The latter is especially troublesome; in addition to friends and family visiting inmates, there are employees at the jail and animal control personnel who need to get to work. People nearby will be without transportation to their jobs in other parts of the county.
“Wave has to identify a plan to operate without county support,” Lawler says. “That’s what the commission has mandated. Bus routes to Carolina Beach and the north county will be most at risk unless other funding can be identified.”
Though a challenge, Lawler is optimistic. “Fortunately, there is time to reconsider or identify other possibilities.”
There are impediments to the county’s withdrawal, too. According to the TransPro Short-Term Efficiencies and Long-Term Governing Model Report Analysis commissioned in 2018 for CFPTA:
“Route 207 was in operation as a community transportation route prior to the creation of the Authority in 2004. In addition to the negative impact created by eliminating the route highlighted in the TransPro report, the route serves the Wilmington VA Clinic and Laney High School. Transit service to the VA Clinic was a requirement of the Veterans Administration when the clinic was constructed, and they should be consulted prior to any modification of Route 207.”
Still, Commissioner White insists the change was long coming. In fact, he has been quite vocal for years about its mismanagement and financial disarray.
“I was the one who pushed for the changes to the ILA four years ago,” White says. “I have been consistent on the issue through my seven years on the board and have tried to shine more light on the issue for years.”
White supports public transit in densely populated areas. However, he also believes the government’s role in providing assistance to those without options exists only up to a certain point.
“It does not make sense in our outlying areas to fund routes that use large buses that few ride,” he insists. “They clog up the roadways, and that cost so much to purchase and operate But if we continue to deny the obvious—i.e. that under its present construct it is wasteful and under existential threat due to disruptions in the transportation industry—then we are not doing our jobs.”
But CFPTA Steve Kelly calls it a “gathering crisis.” Both city and county officials were shown the Wave’s Short Range Transit Plan (SRTP) and a consultant’s report commissioned from TransPro. “These documents both point to the need for dedicated local funding and were submitted over a year ago,” Smith tells. “They were ignored.”
Upon reading the two documents, to withdraw from Wave is far more complicated than it might first appear. For example, the TransPro report notes that “elimination of Route 204 is not under the exclusive purview of the Authority.” In fact, decisions like this also need input from the board and staff at Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) and Brunswick Consortium. WMPO is a federally funded and mandated organization that oversees the regional and cooperative transportation planning process and the expenditure of all federal transportation funds in the greater Wilmington area. However, no resolutions or input has been offered from them yet.
Lawler insists we will find a way forward and make sure public transportation continues throughout Wilmington and Leland. Wave provides 1.3 million rides every year. Losing it would mean converting those rides into more cars on our streets, which will impact infrastructure and add more to greenhouse gas emissions. “What we need is to turn Wave into a really useful service, moving even more people around town and being an attractive alternative,” Lawler says. “Plus, we need a system for people who aren’t able to drive. The streets will be too crowded if all of our transportation has to be by car.”
Public transportation is being treated as a crust of bread the rich throw to the poor, rather than an essential service for an area that is growing increasingly denser and is subject to sea-level rise as a result of climate change. It’s true we need to have a serious discussion about the role of government in providing the best interests of all citizens—not just those who can afford a comfortable life. But we also are long overdue for a discussion about what our fragile peninsula can handle with the rapid growth we are experiencing: How much asphalt? How much construction? How many cars on the road? Public transit is part of that discussion. As Eby notes, “We promote sustainability efforts by operating buses that run on clean and inexpensive natural gas.”
Wave is already working to ensure its mass transit fleet begins using compressed natural gas instead of diesel or gasoline, meaning lowering CO2 emissions by 93%. That equates to a half-million-dollar savings as well.
Meanwhile, we have people without personal transportation trying to meet life’s daily functions: students getting to college, people getting to work, the grocery store, and doctor appointments.
“For now, Wave plans to continue its mission to serve the public without interruption or change in current services,” Eby assures. “We will continue to provide transit to the community as long officials who program public revenue desire.”
Eby also points out Wave has invested over $25 million over the past eight years in facility projects that employ designers, architects and construction tradespeople.
“We support recovery and employment for those suffering from addiction,” he adds. “Wave links affordable housing to valuable services through the community. All of these public services are accomplished with a responsible allocation of taxpayer funding from our partners. For every local dollar invested in transit, Wave is able to bring in over three additional dollars from state and federal sources.”
This issue is far from resolved. There is a public hearing scheduled on November 21, regarding proposed service changes. All are invited to attend. In the meantime, consider taking a ride on a bus to learn about it before weighing in on the issue.