BRUNSWICK COUNTY — The fate of public transportation connecting New Hanover and Brunswick County remains uncertain as local governments begin the process of considering new options.
At their own respective meetings that all occurred Monday: Leland Town Council denied a $9,500 request 5-0, New Hanover County Commissioners denied a $57,000 request 3-2, and Brunswick County Commissioners tabled a $5,500 request 5-0.
The stopgap funding requests arrived as WAVE Transit faces both short and long-term financial uncertainties as state and federal funding remains in question. In the interim, the authority is seeking to cover shortages for the current fiscal year to avoid cutting service hours or routes to make do.
Last month, New Hanover County Commissioners voted 3-2 to cut its financial ties with WAVE entirely, in a surprise move that will leave the authority out at least $330,000 starting in fiscal year 2022 (which begins July 1, 2021)
As it’s currently comprised, the 11-member Cape Fear Transportation Authority board has no official Brunswick County representation. New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington each appoint five members, with both jointly appoint one member to represent Human Services.
Following this week’s funding request, Brunswick Commissioners will soon ask the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority for representation on its board.
For 15 years, WAVE Transit has run a route through northern Brunswick County that loops around Third Street in downtown Wilmington. The Brunswick Connector is one of WAVE’s fourteen operating routes, three of which require local subsidies.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has subsidized its Seahawk Shuttle by upwards of $700,00 annually; Carolina Beach subsidizes the Pleasure Island route by more than $9,000; Brunswick County, the Town of Leland, and the Town of Navassa combined subsidize the Brunswick Connector with more than $90,000.
Northern Brunswick governments local subsidies cover about 33% of the total cost to operate the Brunswick Connector, which cost about $280,000 to run in 2017, according to Wave Transit’s efficiency report last year. According to the report, the route is less utilized than WAVE’s other services, with “low productivity” and about 40% cost recovery.
Every hour, the route carries about 5.5 passengers, according to recent ridership data. It services about 1,500 riders a month and over 18,800 last fiscal year, presumably with repeat riders. In prior years, the route was far more popular, averaging 27,600 riders between fiscal years 2012-2015. The bulk of the route’s riders are picked up in Leland and Wilmington.
Having been appraised of New Hanover County Commissioners’ decision, Leland Town Council opted not to approve Wave Transit’s request for an additional $9,500 at its agenda review meeting Monday.
The town has given Wave Transit more than $50,000 annually for its end of the subsidy agreement to run the Brunswick Connector, which features several stops across town.
“Considering the total shortfall faced by WAVE — and that its request to other government entities had been denied — Leland officials did not believe its contribution of approximately $9,000 would sufficiently assist WAVE,” Leland’s spokesperson Hilary Snow provided in a comment Thursday.
Council plans to prioritize discussing public transportation this upcoming fiscal year, according to Snow.
Brunswick tables, asks for representation
Albert Eby, WAVE Transit’s director, brought Brunswick County Commissioners up to date on the financial shortfalls the authority is facing at the county’s regular meeting Monday evening. Eby said the authority realized it significant financial shortfalls were imminent in January, but talks stalled, and have only since picked up after the authority announced it would be forced to cut its service hours to stay afloat.
That morning, Eby had presented to New Hanover County Commissioners asking for a similar increase (respective of miles of service per entity). There, he was questioned about his $208,000 fiscal year 2020 salary and heard familiar concerns from Commissioner Woody White that the authority should be handed over to the City of Wilmington.
“Since we were created, we have two boards that often have different ideologies when it comes to public transportation,” Eby said at the Brunswick meeting of New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington. “One says we do too much, one says we don’t do enough.”
Brunswick Commissioner Pat Sykes was not comfortable tweaking the county’s current funding allocation, which has remained steady at more than $30,000 in recent years.
“My concern is, we’ve done our budget. You knew your shortfalls before we did our budget. So coming in here now to ask for more money, I’m the type of person, once we set our budget we should stick to the budget as much as possible,” she said.
Commissioner Marty Cooke said regardless of the county’s delayed decision, he was overall in favor of funding public transportation to connect Brunswick and Wilmington.
“We have to keep that artery open between our suburb or Wilmington — if you call it that — and Leland,” Cooke said.
Commissioners discussed — but did not formally take a vote on — drafting a letter to the authority to request a seat on the board. “As long as they’re in existence, we need to have a seat at the table,” Chairman Frank Williams said at the meeting.
Reached Thursday, Eby said the authority will continue to advocate for those who rely on public transportation — individuals who often aren’t able to spend their free time engaging in the ongoing policy debate. “It’s our job as the transit authority to be their advocate,” Eby said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
As for what the authority will do if local subsidies aren’t met this fiscal year, Eby said cutting service is the only option. “We don’t have any dedicated source of funding. The only thing we can do is cut service. We don’t have any way of raising any revenue on our own,” he said.
“We’re here to do what the community wants but at this point, we’re having a hard time proving the most minimal level of service which is what we provide right now.”
Brunswick County Commissioners will revisit Wave’s funding request at their next meeting, scheduled for Monday, December 2.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at email@example.com