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Despite increased budget, Wave Transit struggles with funding issues, covering enough ground

Forden Station, which opened in 2011. Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority, more commonly known as Wave Transit, has faced funding shortfalls for a variety of reasons in recent years. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — For years, Wave Transit has struggled with funding. But despite a lack of significant local funding, a decline in federal subsidies, and a shortfall in rider revenues, providing services to residents continues to be a priority, according to the Wave board.

On Thursday the board approved its Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget which will go into effect on July 1.

Since 2016 Wave Transit has failed to reach its goals for revenues brought in by riders fares and continues to rely heavily on federal funding to provide for the services provided, but despite the shortfalls, the annual budget for 2019 is expected to increase.

The 2019 proposed budget of $8,885,781 is a 1.48% increase from the previous year’s budget, according to Albert Eby Executive Director in his budget message to the board.

“The proposed operating budget has proven to be one of the most challenging of the Authority’s sixteen budgets. On the revenue side, rapid growth and development of the region have led to elimination of rural funding appropriations from both the state and federal budgets. Federal transit apportionments have remained flat. The US Congress has failed to reinstate the Alternate Fuels Tax Credit of .50 per gallon equivalent for compressed natural gas,” Eby said.

“As the Authority continues to integrate new CNG vehicles into our fleet, failure to see benefits from the AFTC will result in six figure losses. Declining ridership appears to have stabilized but passenger fares are reflective of the national trend and unable to offset the subsidies necessary from end users. Local support remains consistent and a three percent increase has been requested from local funding partners,” Eby continued.

Criticism of Wave Transit is frequent amongst residents, but the bottom line comes down to funding, City of Wilmington Councilman and Wave Transit Board Member Kevin O’Grady said.

The funding structure of any public transit system comes from a multitude of sources in a pyramid shape, local funding at the top followed by state funding making up about 20%, and 80% of the funding coming from federal assistance, he said.

And the bigger the contributions from local subsidies, the larger the subsidies at the federal level become — but getting local funding and support for Wave is difficult.

O’Grady has served on the board for several years and Thursday was his final meeting as a Wave Transit board member, Councilman Paul Lawler will be replacing him as the City Council member of the board.

There are a variety of different challenges facing the public transit system, covering such a large area with a limited number of buses in its fleet — just 16 — is a major one. That is why the fixed routes tend to only see buses once an hour and wait times can get cumbersome; it is simply working with the resources available.

If the transit system were to increase those route times to twice per hour, it would, in theory, need twice the amount of buses or 32, a costly solution that is not likely to happen, O’Grady said.

Funding for new routes is limited and some have even had to be taken away due to a lack of ridership or money available. At a local level, the City of Wilmington provides the most amount of funding to the transit authority with $1.4 million in subsidies. That is more than $1 million more than what New Hanover County chips in with $321,229 in this year’s budget.

The county also contributes funding from the Department of Aging as well as money through the Department of Social Services, but that money goes towards programs like the Dial-a-Ride Transportation (DART) services that are provided to disabled riders and could be disbursed to the transportation method of choosing — it just happens to be the county chooses to spend that money with Wave, O’Grady said.

The DART program is a federally required system for disabled riders, but it is also the most expensive to operate — each ride costs around $24, but Wave only charges $4 per trip.

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