Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Public transit, bike/ped rank high among residents in WMPO study

How is Kerr of Kerr Avenue really pronounced? It's a debate that has divided the Wilmington area since the 19th century. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Kerr Avenue, included in the WMPO’s work plan, is a project soon to be underway. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

WILMINGTON – The vision of the next 25 years of transportation in the Cape Fear region has become a little clearer per results from a recent study on the public’s travel priorities.

READ MORE: Wilmington council against tolled bridge replacement, WMPO members mixed ahead of vote

Senior Transportation Planner Vanessa Lacer presented the findings from the Cape Fear Navigating Change 2050 plan to her fellow Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization members last week. It revealed locals’ top three funding concerns, in no particular order, are public transportation, improving or maintaining roads, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Other options included roadway safety, rail, aviation, water transit.

The study was broken into two parts: a survey and stakeholder interviews. Combined, it gathered more than 6,000 responses. 

The data will be compiled to draft the Cape Fear Navigating Change 2050, used by federal, state, and local governments to guide transportation projects in the region over the next two decades. The plan is updated every five years; the last one, Cape Fear Moving Forward 2045, was adopted in 2020.

The 2050 plan indicates a slight shift in priorities for the Cape Fear region; CFMF 2045 included investments in improving the safety of existing roads, the quality of current roads and increasing bicycle and pedestrian navigation — public transportation did not take a top slot. 

However this year there was more interest in public transit from surveyors.

The survey was distributed to residents in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, though Wilmington and New Hanover County surveyors made up the majority of responses. Brunswick and New Hanover county participants made up around 15% and 70% of responses, respectively, were in line with population numbers — 144,215 and 229,018, respectively, per the U.S. Census. Pender County residents, making up around 15% of the population, were underrepresented by 5 percentage points. Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach residents were slightly overrepresented compared to their population counts.

The demographic data shows the responses skew slightly toward white residents with higher incomes, while people of other races were underrepresented. People with incomes higher than $75,000 are also overrepresented and anyone making less than $50,000 are underrepresented.

Survey respondents were asked to answer questions about their current and desired travel habits. They were also prompted to participate in an exercise where they spend an allocated amount of money on different kinds of transportation, indicating their priorities.

“This is where we asked folks to take $100 and show us how they would spend the money,” Lacer said at the Jan. 17 WMPO meeting. “This is on average what people spend their $100 on, and you’ll see improving and maintaining roads at $22. So that’s where people spend the most money, followed by bicycle pedestrian facilities at $19 on average and then third was public transportation at $14 on average.”

Recent projects that were planned for by the WMPO’s plan include the Military Cutoff Extension, completed last fall, and the Kerr Avenue widening, which is set to begin construction in 2024. These projects were included in the WMPO’s 2040 plan.

This time around, residents in lower income brackets chose to spend more on public transit and rail.

Rail isn’t a mode of transportation in Wilmington currently. Though that could change in coming years, as a local passenger rail project received a recent boost from the federal government, with a Wilmington-to-Raleigh route being awarded $500,000 for identification and development last fall. It was one of seven corridors in the state chosen for funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Inversely, people that took the survey from higher income brackets chose to spend less on those areas and more on bicycle and pedestrian projects, road maintenance and aviation.

The study indicated, if given the choice, residents would choose to use their car less and preferred walking, then biking and public transportation.

By comparison, the survey captured 46% of stakeholders, which encompass a range of area leaders, that said more and better public transit would positively impact the group they represent, followed by bike and pedestrian projects at 29%, and improving and maintaining roads (19%), rail (4%) and roadway safety (2%).

Lacer said the stakeholders were used to diversify the respondent base, casting a more targeted net to capture all voices in the community.

In an analysis of current travel behavior, the study found most people drive alone. Survey respondents reported walking as the second-highest mode, while stakeholders said they took public transit. 

New Hanover County voters struck down a bond referendum for a 1/4-cent sales tax that was on the 2022 ballot. It would have funded more bike and pedestrian trails, Wave transit, and rail realignment. The tax failed by a margin of 6%, or around 5,400 votes. The failure will hit Wave the hardest, as it had to reduce its budget from $11 million to $7 million in the wake of the vote. 

Safety was the top reason for choosing a mode of transportation, though cost ranked just as high for stakeholders; only 10% of survey respondents considered financial impact most important. Safety and convenience ranked similarly for both groups, between 22% and 26%.

A draft of the Navigating Change 2050 is planned for release in June 2025, when another public feedback initiative will kick off before the plan is finalized the following November. 

“After that concludes, we’ll take all of those comments and integrate them into the plan and then present that final plan to our board,” Lacer said.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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