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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Wave Transit expects $745,000 deficit in 2020 without service cuts or new funding sources

WAVE Transit has announced it plans to purchase nine compressed natural gas buses to replace its aging diesel vehicles. (Port City Daily /FILE PHOTO)

WILMINGTON — Wave Transit, the region’s public transportation system, has faced scrutiny from residents, elected leaders, and riders for its costs to taxpayers and annual budget shortfalls.

Even with federal, state, and local funding, as well as fares, nearly every single route operated by Wave, has a projected deficit for Fiscal Year 2020.

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

The one route that is not expected to fall short is the UNCW Seahawks Shuttle — which is paid for by the university and other sources.

So just how much does each route cost? Well, they vary but range from the mid-$200,000s to more than $1 million for the Seahawk Shuttle.

Service Models

There are two main types of service models, a coverage model, and a convenience model.

“A coverage model offers infrequent transit service (typically 60-minute headways) over the majority of an urbanized area (UZA). This model ensures that all jurisdictions encompassing the UZA have access to federal and state public transportation revenues if local match is provided. Coverage models are common in regional transit systems. The major drawback of the coverage model is that less populous areas are not as economical or efficient due to fewer passengers,” according to a report from Wave Transit.

The convenience model, on the other hand, focuses on more densely populated areas.

“This method of service delivery allocates resources to the most densely populated areas on a more frequent basis, either consistently or during peak demand, or overextended hours during the service day. This service model offers increased convenience for passengers and potential passengers living in denser areas which can make commuting by bus more appealing potentially leading to higher ridership. The convenience model is challenging, especially in transit-dependent areas, because it offers no service in outlying urbanized areas,” according to the report.

So what does Wave offer?

The Downtown Trolly is one of several Wave Transit routes in the city (Port City Daily/Courtesy Wave)
The Downtown Trolly is one of several Wave Transit routes in the city. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Wave)

Wave offers what is known as a hybrid service but could be moving to modify its current routes, if it takes the recommendations of the report.

“Wave Transit currently offers a hybrid service model which offers convenient service in the more populous areas where ridership is high, and less frequency in the outlying areas. The majority of fixed-route transit service is based on a coverage model. This exception is the UNCW area and the Brooklyn and Creekwood neighborhoods. Data analysis of population per hectare demonstrates that there is no perfect model for transit planning based on population density as the main factor,” according to the report.

Last year, Wave hired TransPro, a company based out of Tampa, FL., to analyze the operations at the authority. According to that study, Wave Transit is also one of the most expensive public transit agencies per ride compared to comparable agencies.

“… Data for 2017 illustrates that Wave Transit has the second-highest farebox recovery ratio among peers identified in the TransPro report. In fact, Wave Transit recovery ratio is nearly twice as efficient in end-user payment as most peer agencies. The downside of high fare recovery is that it is typically driven by higher than average passenger fares. Wave Transit has the highest fare for bus transportation in the state due to the fact that fares are the only method of significant revenue available to the Authority Board. While higher fares can positively impact the bottom line, it also can significantly impact economically disadvantaged transit patrons which could inhibit transit usage and value,” according to that report.

It was also found that Wave ranks below average when it comes to route productivity — but there are plenty of factors that play a role in this ranking.

From density, traffic congestions, the price of fuel and resident vehicle ownership all play an important role in figuring out productivity — one other important factor is the general wealth of the region.

“Higher incomes typically relate to less transit dependency and usage in areas where public transportation is designed and funded to serve a primarily transit-dependent population. Additionally, a significant amount of affordable housing was lost due to Hurricane Florence. These affordable housing areas displaced many residents who are transit-dependent due to economic hardship,” the report states.

Some of the Routes and their costs

Route 101 — Princess Place

This is Wave’s highest ridership route according to the report and serves the Northside, Creekwood, and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

  • Fiscal Year 2020 Expenses & Revenues
    • Route Cost  $450,820
    • Farebox Revenue ‐ $96,800
    • State Funding Allocated ‐ $38,168
    • Federal Funding Allocated ‐ $159,440
    • Local Funding Allocated ‐ $125,289
    • Program Revenue Allocated ‐ $643
    • FY 2020 Route Deficit ‐ $30,480  

Route 101 also has an additional route in place that is known as the Princess Place Peak. This service costs an additional $27,889 annually and operates with a $12,229 deficit.

Route 103 — Oleander East 

Oleander East is one of the more expensive routes and covers the New Hanover County Government Center, UNCW and surrounding areas.

  • Fiscal Year 2020 Expenses & Revenues
    • Route Cost ‐ $470,597
    • Farebox Revenue ‐ $54,323
    • State Funding Allocated ‐ $39,843
    • Federal Funding Allocated ‐ $166,434
    • Local Funding Allocated ‐ $130,785
    • Program Revenue Allocated ‐ $672
    • FY 2020 Route Deficit ‐ $78,541

While these are just two of the several routes Wave Transit operates, the story remains the same — funding and revenues are just not enough to pay for the services being provided.

“As demonstrated in the route financial analysis of this report, local funding is inadequate to meet the current and short term requirements to provide the existing level of transit service. In fiscal year 2020, a deficit of $745,526 is expected to be realized without significant service reductions or revenue identification,” according to the report.

Wave Transit, like other governmental bodies, works with what is known as its general fund. The fund was provided by the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County in 2014 and so far, non-budgeted revenues have grown from -3.1% to 6.8% — but the goal is to bring that up to at least 8%.

“The Authority Board has set a minimum goal of 8% fund balance as recommended by the NC Local Government Commission, with a higher goal to follow. The fund balance is vital to cash flow and protects the Authority from revenue disruption as a result of natural disasters like hurricanes and unanticipated issues like a federal government shutdown. Unfortunately, the effort is in jeopardy without the realization of additional local funding or a dramatic decrease in service offerings,” according to the TransPro report.

The future of Wave

Unfortunately, one of the only ways to increase the efficiency of Wave Transit is to limit the services and routes offered.

“Opportunities for efficiency in route offerings detailed by TransPro is exclusively limited to the reduction of routes. The routes were carefully planned based on sound planning principles and elimination of routes should be undertaken only as a last resort … Wave Transit routes are not necessarily structured exclusively to drive ridership but also to provide transit services to economically challenged areas, regions of the community with high areas of physically and mentally challenged residents, and areas of substantial affordable housing units,” the report states.

For New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White, cutting spending to public transit is something he wants to see happen, citing new ideas like Uber and Lyft as alternatives. White also said he was not in favor of a proposal for the county to charge a $7 vehicle registration fee to help fund Wave. The plan, put forward over the summer by Steve Kelly Sr., vice-chairman of Cape Fear Public Transit Authority (WAVE) board, got mixed reviews from commissioners.

Related: Will New Hanover County bail out WAVE or hand it over to Wilmington?

The future of our region’s public transit remains unknown but one thing seems certain, without additional funding sources or the scaling back of services, the system will continue to operate in the red.

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