Wednesday, June 19, 2024

‘Everything is on the table’: Wave strategizes for 5-year short-range plan

Wave Transit is working with consultant Nelson\Nygaard on a five-year, short-range plan to improve efficiency and safety of service. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Eighteen months after making some pivotal changes to service, the local transit authority is analyzing the impact, as well as taking a comprehensive look at its efficiency and ridership as a whole.

READ MORE: Wave increases routes and frequencies, as $2 rideshare tops 3,000 virtual stops

Wave Transit is in the planning stages of its five-year short-range plan, Reimagine Wave Transit. With assistance from consultant Nelson\Nygaard — selected through a competitive process and hired for nearly $200,000 — the organization is analyzing the local market, current needs and demand factors to determine where the transit authority can improve service.

Nelson\Nygaard, founded in San Francisco but with offices nationwide, helped Wave with its last short-range plan in 2018 and is therefore already familiar with the Wilmington area. The consultant is being paid half through federal funding and half Wave’s budget dollars.

“We’re looking at where we’ve been and where we intend to head, improving the system,” Wave’s new executive director, Mark Hairr, said. He took over from Marie Parker and started in September. “We’re looking at a major transformation.”

Last July, Wave increased frequency to highly used routes and replaced some less traveled ones with RideMicro, a rideshare program with more than 3,000 virtual stops in the tri-county region. The pilot program launched October 2021 and allows the transit authority to reach more destinations than its fixed bus routes.

Looking to the future, Wave is hoping to extend amenities and safety at its stops, ensure routes are the most direct and user friendly and focus frequency in high-demand locations.

Hairr said some “new and creative approaches” in the upcoming short-range plan could be implemented as soon as next calendar year. Specifics are yet available because preparations for the plan have just begun. 

Staff and the hired consultant are still studying market conditions and gathering feedback from the public, including riders of Wave’s services. Nelson\Nygaard will analyze population densities, job types, socio-economic measures, car ownership and locations to support the highest demand.

Racial and ethnic minorities and low-income households are more likely to use public transit, the consultant found. In Wilmington, individuals without access to vehicles are almost 18 times more likely to take transit than the general population.

An analysis also found transit demand is the highest in the Northside of downtown, the historic district, the medical center near Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center, and in and around UNCW. While these areas are currently served with fixed bus routes, there could be the need to increase frequency or alter routes to be more direct.

The need is moderate near Monkey Junction — where routes 201 and 107 run hourly and 201 runs every 30 minutes — and Mayfaire,  served by one hourly route.

“Wilmington has the density, demographics and job types to support higher frequency than it currently provides,” Nelson\Nygaard’s research shows.

The plan will highlight the direction in which routes are taken to cut down on safety issues for pedestrians, such as corridors along College Road, Market Street, Carolina Beach Road, Shipyard Boulevard, Oleander Drive, and 16th and 17th streets.

Wilmington has consistently ranked as having one of the highest pedestrian crash rates in the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Between 2016 and 2020, the city averaged 75 incidents and three fatalities per year, for a population around 115,000.

READ MORE: Reducing pedestrian crashes by 65%: Walk Wilmington urges council to consider more sidewalks

Some major destinations are difficult to access from stops due to lack of pedestrian infrastructure and surface parking. Many areas that drop off passengers on one side of the street and pick them up on the other don’t have crosswalks but may be the more attractive option for a rider who can spend a shorter amount of time on the bus.

“We have to be careful with how we position our stops in the system to not put pedestrians at risk,” deputy director Jon Dodson said.

He added that means partnering with the city, county and state to make improvements.

“We do capital improvements, but we’re not in the sidewalk business,” Dodson said.

Only 7% of Wave’s more than 400 bus stops have amenities — meaning a shelter, bench and ADA-compliant curb — lower than the state average of 18% of bus stops.

While adding more amenities is on Wave’s radar, it’s all dependent on resources, which are limited. To install, properly, one shelter with a concrete pad and engineering services, it could cost up to $30,000, D’Itri said.

Though Hairr noted there’s money in the budget to install up to 20 more shelters in 2024.

CATCH UP: Wave makes 58 upgrades with more stops, shelters, board questions preliminary budget

Combining stops, such as routes that cross Front, Third and Fifth streets, into one area would also cut back on costs with the creation of a combined shelter.

Where to install safer amenities will be based on demand and ridership, up by about 7% overall since last year. Routes that increased in frequency, starting last summer, have seen a spike in ridership anywhere from 20%, on Route 205, Long Leaf Park to 60% on Route 107, serving College Road.

However, overall passenger numbers are still down from pre-pandemic years, and it’s been slowly making a comeback due to the shift in commuting and travel.

“Services were scaled back, cut or eliminated during the pandemic, so people had to find other ways to get around,” Hairr said. “And we fell off the radar for some people during Covid.”

Dodson added commuter behaviors have changed with people working from home. Also, the driver shortage impacted Wave’s routes over the last few years but has improved in 2023.

Better route alignment is also on the table for review, to ensure stops are positioned in a way that’s most helpful to the public and makes the system attractive.

“We want it to be time-competitive with cars,” Dodson said.

To do so, drivers have to follow best practices in the country, including never leaving a stop early and not arriving more than five minutes late.

“If there’s 40 stops on a route, 10 are the time keepers,” D’Itri explained.

Wave’s schedule, according to Nelson\Nygaard, is easy to understand and routes operate in the same way on all trips, making it more user-friendly.

One thing likely not on the table is increasing fares. 

“It’s not an item that we think is something that will be necessary, but we’ll determine that later,” Hairr said, though it’s a question on the survey that’s available to the public on Wave’s website. Residents are encouraged to share thoughts on improving service.

The consulting team has already spent time, boots on the ground, riding buses and interviewing riders, drivers and supervisors to grasp current conditions.

After Thanksgiving, Hairr said Wave plans to ramp up community engagement with events so any future plan will meet the needs of those who use the system or are considering it.

The Wave board held a workshop last month for additional feedback and staff and the consultant continue with weekly meetings as the plan is shaped and formed.

“Everything is on the table,” Dodson said. “The main thing is we want to make the current system we have out there, with what we have, better and more attractive and whatever is necessary to get there, we’re comfortable with trying to work toward that.”

The short-range plan will examine three scenarios of how to approach changes: if funding decreases, with $12 million in Covid-19 federal funding expiring; if the budget remains neutral; and if more money comes in via grants or a possible ballot initiative again.

Voters turned down last fall’s quarter-cent transit tax, which would have provided $65 million to Wave over 10 years. Currently, Wave operates on a roughly $11.7-million budget — slightly higher than last year’s $11.6-million operating budget — and is receiving an additional $770,000 over the next four years from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

READ MORE: Voters nix quarter-cent sales tax increase, county officials regroup on transit initiatives

“Wave Transit’s expected budget would allow current service levels to operate through the third quarter of FY25,” D’Itri said.

The short-range plan could include service changes, if a budget decrease is imminent, she added.

A recommended short-range plan will be brought to the board in early 2024 before a final vote is taken in the spring, with another opportunity for community input during a public hearing.

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