Wednesday, April 17, 2024

WAVE goodbye? Not quite, but Wilmington and New Hanover will restructure public transit

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman; behind, from left, Commissioner Woody White, Wilmington Councilman Charlie Rivenbark, Commissioner Patricia Kusek, Councilman Clifford Barnett, and Mayor Bill Saffo. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — Today officials announced that Wilmington and New Hanover County will consider radical changes to WAVE, including a new interlocal agreement, new partners and funding agreements, and likely a new board and administration.

At a joint press conference, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and New Hanover Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman both said it was time for a new approach to mass transit, and that the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority would be overhauled.

According to Saffo and Olson-Boseman, over the next 18 months, the city and county will completely rewrite their interlocal agreement by July 2021, with a new mission statement aimed at restructuring the region’s public transit. Both expect to see formal commitments to the restructuring process at meetings of the Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners later this month.

According to a release from the county, “[the] interlocal agreement between the county and city will be rebuilt with new priorities, including a transportation model that: balances convenience with coverage, so routes are operated where there is the highest use and greatest need; embraces innovation; includes paratransit services county-wide; partners with other governments to equitably share in the cost for services to those communities; utilizes available revenue to ensure predictable and sustainable funding; and incorporates a governance body in keeping with the city and county’s priorities.”

Olson-Boseman said the ‘rebooted’ transit authority would still likely be called WAVE, but almost everything else is subject to change.

So, what exactly does that mean for WAVE?

WAVE buses will “continue to run” during the process of evaluating and potentially restructuring the authority, but there are few other details; both city and county staff have been tasked with looking at the evaluation process, and will be supported by an outside transportation expert, according to Saffo. Both Saffo and Olson-Boseman said the media and the public would be updated as more information becomes available, and that public input would be solicited as the process evolves.

New board and administration?

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo discussing potential changes to WAVE. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Asked, if restructuring would mean liquidating WAVE’s board, its administration including Executive Director Albert Eby, or both, Saffo said he did not know, but that city staff would deliver recommendations to council soon. Olson-Boseman was more direct.

“Our expectation — or my expectation — is yes, there’s going to be new management and a new board. Probably a board made of some of the people you see up here today,” Olson-Boseman said, indicating fellow commissioners Woody White and Patrica Kusek, as well as Saffo and Wilmington City Council members Charlie Rivenbark and Clifford Barnett.

While Saffo and Olson-Boseman said they have agreed to work together on this and other regional issues, they did not necessarily seem to share an assessment of WAVE’s performance.

Saffo said he believed WAVE had done “a pretty good job” but had “had a lot of hindrances because the community has grown, the operation has grown, and additional funding is going to be necessary.”

“I think, for my part anyway, we support public transportation, we think that it’s time that we get with the times, and deal with ride-sharing, and other avenues that we can work with public transportation — and right now I have no faith in the board and that administration,” Olson-Boseman said.

[Note: Port City Daily has reached out to WAVE’s leadership for comment and will update this article with any response that is received.]

New partners

Saffo noted that there could be “new seats at the table” for governing public transportation.

Currently, the authority board has members appointed by New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington. Recently, Brunswick County debated asking for a seat on the board in response to a request from WAVE for supplemental funding.

Saffo said the revaluation would look at “balanced” agreements to help ensure WAVE continues to operate without a property tax increase.

“Do we have all the municipalities at the table that need to be involved? Are they willing to support the system financially,” Saffo said, adding that there needed to be standards for representation on a governing board.

“We’ve also got to make sure that the people who want to be a part of this process, you know, what are they going to pay to be a part of it — and how much is going to cost,” Saffo said, naming Leland as well as Brunswick and Pender counties as potential governments who could increase their stake in guiding WAVE’s future.

New routes?

Part of the discussion in the months ahead, according to Saffo and Olson-Boseman, will be about balancing “coverage” and “convenience” models.

“When this authority was set up in 2002, the commitment was that we would make it a coverage model, and the board and the WAVE transit executives have tried to do that with the money they had,” Saffo said. “Obviously there’s a lot of concerns about that coverage model.”

A potential shortcoming of a coverage model is that it may sacrifice ridership for covering a certain geographical area — even if few people in that area take advantage of public transit. On the other hand, convenience models cater to more densely populated areas and more popular destinations — but may leave some out in the cold.

The decision on which philosphy to embrace — or what balance of the two is appropriate — will have a real-world impact on what routes a new version of WAVE runs, and which routes it drops. One thing officials agreed on, though, is that the current system isn’t working.

Saffo said he didn’t know the answer to how to set up new routes but said that it was the impetus for the “very frank” conversations being hand between the city and the county.

Not new problems

Last summer, when WAVE approved its annual budget, it was clear the authority was still struggling financially; WAVE faced about $750,000 in budget shortfalls if it continued without service reductions or increases in funding.

In October, county commissioners voted 3-2 to discontinue approximately $320,000 in county funding for WAVE. The motion, introduced by Olson-Boseman at the end of a meeting, appeared to catch some fellow commissioners and staff off-guard; Olson-Boseman, however, said the motion was to address financial issues at WAVE which she noted were by no means new. Olson-Boseman laid some of those issues at the city’s feet.

“[WAVE] is broken and I don’t think we need to keep throwing good money after bad. Public transportation municipal function and the city isn’t doing a very good job,” she said.

Following requests for supplemental funding, some of which were denied (including requests to New Hanover County and Leland), WAVE ultimately announced at the end of 2019 that it would cut service hours but not remove any routes (including the county-funded route north of Wilmington).

During the 2019 municipal elections, public transit was a frequent debate topic; Saffo, as well as Councilman Neil Anderson and Mayor Pro Tem, all stated on during their campaigns that all regional partners including the county needed to support WAVE. And, while there were different ideas about how to increase ridership, nearly every candidate, incumbent or otherwise, noted that increasing choice ridership — passengers who choose mass transit for convenience or environmental reasons instead of necessity — was key.

Next steps

The next Wilmington City Council meeting is on Tuesday, January 21, at City Hall in downtown Wilmington at 6:30 p.m.

The next New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meeting is Tuesday, January 21, in Room 301 of the New Hanover County Courthouse at 24 N. 3rd St. in downtown Wilmington. (Note: Commissioners usually meet on Monday afternoons, but due to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on that Monday, the meeting will be held Tuesday morning at 9 a.m.)

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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