Monday, November 28, 2022

Deep Dive: Leland, Brunswick County just defunded Wave’s Brunswick Connector. What went wrong?

A Wave Transit bus operator wears a mask in downtown Wilmington as the service continues to operate during the coronavirus pandemic. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A Wave Transit bus operator wears a mask in downtown Wilmington as the service continues to operate during the coronavirus pandemic. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After 16 years in service, Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority will soon no longer have the funds necessary to continue running a route that connects Wilmington to Brunswick County.

Last month, Wave Transit requested a contract extension with the Brunswick Consortium, the group that helps fund the Brunswick Connector, a generally over-subsidized and under-utilized route.

Related: Leland denies additional Wave funding; Brunswick County tables issue, asks for seat on authority board

Instead of renewing the Wave Transit contract, Leland chose not to include funding the route in its upcoming budget months back (Wave hadn’t shared a solid number yet, so the town didn’t include it). Council officially voted not to fund the route in a May 11 special meeting. In recent years, Leland has contributed the bulk of local funding toward the route, about $50,000 annually, making up about 54% of the local Brunswick Consortium contributions and 17% of the total cost.

Following Leland’s lead, Brunswick County Commissioners also declined Wave’s funding request, given that without Leland’s contributions, the county would have to cover the difference to keep the route viable.

If northern Brunswick County political leaders don’t change their minds, the Brunswick Connector’s last day in service will be August 28. The decisions will impact an estimated 200 riders that regularly rely on the route.

“It is an unfortunate situation especially for the individuals that rely on the service,” Navassa’s Town Administrator, Claudia Bray, said Wednesday. Navassa’s Council has not yet voted on the item but it’s unlikely the small town can cover the entire $100,000 local funding request on its own.

Given the pandemic’s impact on the economy, Wave Transit expects ridership to spike, even though it has plummeted in recent months due to contagion concerns.

“Transit is very cyclical,” the authority’s director, Albert Eby, explained. “It ebbs and flows with the economy, fuel prices, and employment. The reason we’ve seen lower ridership in recent years is that we’ve recovered from the recent economic recession.”

Now, with record unemployment and possible economic hardship ahead, Eby said the transit industry is preparing to face a rebound in ridership.

Why?

Route 204 was Wave Transit’s second least-traveled route and its third-highest subsidized route last fiscal year. Costing taxpayers $12.49 per rider, the route would have a 6% cost recovery if the Brunswick County Consortium didn’t pitch in.

Belville backed out of the group in 2012 after the authority requested more money from the town and the town’s Commissioners were concerned about low ridership. Wave Transit’s funding formula for the Brunswick Connector is roughly based on miles traveled within the given government’s limits. Local governments served by the route (Brunswick County, Navassa, and Leland) pitch in about one-third of the total cost to run the route, with federal funds covering the majority while state and local fares making up the rest.

With 12 daily trips between Brunswick County and Wilmington, the route gets about six customers an hour spread out along the route. That’s less than half of Wave Transit’s average hourly ridership per route, according to a 2018 TransPro report. The route supported 18,125 rides last fiscal year according to Wave Transit data, many being repeat riders.

In January, Wave Transit’s finance director informed Leland Town Manager David Hollis the authority may be looking to the town to pay an additional $10,000 to $15,000 to fund the route, bringing Leland’s contribution to $60,000 to $65,000. In late March, Wave Transit couldn’t pinpoint a specific budget request for the Brunswick Consortium members and requested additional time.

By mid-April, Leland still hadn’t received exact numbers from Wave Transit, prompting frustration from Town staff and Council as they worked to put together their new budget.

Councilwoman Pat Batleman, the vice-chair of the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization who is well-versed in transportation-related issues, told Council in an April 11 meeting that Wave Transit was looking for formal guidance from the town. Wave Transit had requested a letter from the town’s leaders to solidify what exactly they wanted from the authority, Batleman said. In turn, Leland leaders wanted specifics from Wave Transit, sharing the general sentiment it was the authority’s responsibility to put together a request, not the other way around.

At the meeting, Town Manager David Hollis said the authority had not reached out to share details regarding its contract with the Brunswick Consortium, set to expire June 30, and had yet to share the exact dollar figure needed to continue funding the route. “It’s all kind of up in the air and we’ve just been left to the side with no communication of what they intend to do,” he said at the meeting.

Council debated whether or not the town should continue subsidizing the route, given its low ridership. Batleman said she was hesitant to ask staff to engage in further talks with Wave Transit, believing staff may be “prejudiced” against public transit. Hollis replied he was. “We’re giving money away to an organization that, quite frankly, is running the in red all the time and right now is going to be living off of a coronavirus subsidy of money to exist for the next five years, ” he said.

“We see it come by Town Hall all the time. In all the years that we’ve been here looking out the window at it, I may have seen enough people to count on my fingers who have actually been there on the bus stop to ride the route,” Hollis said.

In red, the Brunswick Connector, compared to Wave Transit's other routes. The route is generally over-subsidized and under utilized. Click to enlarge. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Town of Leland)
In red, the Brunswick Connector, compared to Wave Transit’s other routes. The route is generally over-subsidized and under utilized. Click to enlarge. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Town of Leland)

The next week, Wave Transit’s executive director, Albert Eby, emailed members of the Brunswick Consortium, requesting the same amount in the upcoming fiscal year as was allocated in the current fiscal year, with no capital funds request. Eby also included a contract extension and addendum, emails show.

Leland staff had reached out to Wave Transit staff, requesting ridership details and data. Leland combed through the data and identified drastically different ridership numbers and GPS points pinged in areas far outside the route’s given pathway. In response, Wave Transit staff confirmed there were issues with the data but that ridership figures derived from farebox payments were reliable.

Monday, not fully briefed on the town’s rationale, Brunswick County Commissioners denied Wave Transit’s request. Wave Transit had informed the county and Navassa that if the two governments didn’t cover the $54,636 Leland had declined, the route would cease to exist.

“When there’s a service being provided to a municipality, my thinking is, that they should be stepping up and subsidizing that perspective. Otherwise, they’re just saying to us, ‘We don’t want to do it, you go ahead and pay the bill, have a nice day,’ Commissioner Marty Cooke said. “I have a lot of heartburn to spend this kind of money without a really strong explanation.”

Commissioner Mike Forte was short and to the point: “This thing’s been bleeding money for years,” he said at the Monday meeting.

In a statement, Chairman Frank Williams said the county must focus on issues from a county-wide perspective. “While I personally see the need for some level of public transportation in northern Brunswick County, and while I have mixed emotions about this decision, our board was not willing to make up the difference now that two of the three Brunswick County towns served by the Brunswick Connector have decided to withhold funding,” he said Tuesday.

Good to bad

Councilwoman Veronica Carter, a vocal proponent of public transportation, said she grew up using the service for 20 years in New York. She told Council she’d never vote against public transportation in the April Meeting. But in May, Council was united in denying Wave Transit’s funding request. The decision was not one she takes lightly, Carter said.

“I cannot in good conscience obligate taxpayer dollars to folks whose answers are sometimes less than desirable and confusing,” Carter said Tuesday, explaining her decision. “We can’t just continue to pour good money into bad without answers or a seat at the table.”

Carter envisions a new northern Brunswick County transportation system, one created by a network of local leaders and informed by future studies that identify need. As a rapidly growing town, Carter said it’s time for the region to fully vet out what transportation needs exist and may soon emerge. For the riders who have grown reliant on the service, Carter said the town will do what it can to be mindful of the time between the existing service ending and a potential new service beginning.

“There’s going to be a gap while we’re busy studying and the Wave Transit contract ends,” she said. “People are struggling. I know we need transportation.”

Given the pandemic’s impact on local government budgets, Batleman explained Leland is taking a conservative approach heading into the upcoming budget.

She said staff and Wave Transit’s consultant, TransPro, were able to determine the Brunswick Connector had about 200 dedicated riders in pre-pandemic conditions. “The bottom line is the ridership the Town is supporting is simply too weak to maintain the service,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

It’s tough to make bus travel attractive given the difficulty of guaranteeing reliable and frequent service with transportation cost savings, she said. Gas prices have reached all-time lows, making travel by car more affordable, Batleman said. “With a one-hour headway, we simply don’t have a way to incentivize an increase in ridership. Without a minimum 30 minute headway during rush hours, we are fighting a rising tide,” she said.

Batleman said she is extremely disappointed in the outcome. The town may consider how to implement a public transit system in the region as it heads into a new long-term strategic plan, Batleman said. Or, the option of rejoining the Wave Transit partnership may not be completely ruled out; Batleman said once TransPro completes its analysis and comes up with recommendations, the changes may open up that possibility for the town.

Sources of operating funding for the Brunswick Connector. Note: the route will not continue in fiscal year 2021. Click to enlarge. (Port City Daily graph/Courtesy Wave Transit)
Sources of operating funding for the Brunswick Connector. Note: the route will not continue in fiscal year 2021. Click to enlarge. (Port City Daily graph/Courtesy Wave Transit)

How did we get here?

Controversy and political pressure have swirled around Wave Transit over the past year. In October 2019, the authority announced it would be facing $750,000 in budget shortfalls, requiring additional local funding or service cuts to maintain service.

Later the same month, New Hanover County Commissioners in a split vote announced it would cut ties with the authority, a move that surprised many stakeholders. But Wave Transit had struggled with financial issues for years, developing a pattern of requesting additional funds from local governments outside of budget season, drawing the ire of local officials.

Leland and New Hanover County denied Wave Transit’s stopgap funding requests in November 2019 and Brunswick County tabled it. Upon receiving the request, Brunswick County Commissioners asked staff to pen a letter to Wave Transit to formally request representation on the 11-member board, comprised then and now of City of Wilmington and New Hanover County appointees. Brunswick Commissioners tabled it, revisited it again in January, but never officially approved sending the letter given the authority’s ongoing uncertainties and turmoil within its home county.

By January, New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington held a joint press conference, announcing plans to overhaul Wave and likely liquidate the current board and leadership.

With a new board, including one of the authority’s most vocal critics, New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White, the authority is figuring out a new path forward. Since March 1, ridership on fixed routes is down 25% and paratransit routes are down 75%. With the University of North Carolina at Wilmington students at home due to the coronavirus, the authority laid off 17 full-time and two part-time employees that help run the Seahawk Shuttle.

Wave Transit is facing at least a $1 million budget shortfall heading into fiscal year 2021, according to its budget workshop last month. But on April 20, Wave Transit announced it was awarded $6.8 million in CARES Act funding, enough to carry the authority through the next few years.

Even with stimulus funds, the local governments dropping out of the Brunswick Connector mean the matching federal funds designated to the route will get reappropriated, the authority’s director said.

“Absent somebody providing a local match, we’ll have to discontinue service on that side of the river,” Eby said.

Wave Transit will soon initiate a public comment period before ending the service. “We take to heart that our customers are transit-dependent and taking someone’s ride away is not taken lightly, that is why we provide 90 days for public feedback,” Wave Transit’s finance director, Joseph Mininni, wrote in an email. “Hopefully if their voices are loud enough the local support for the route will come back.”

Transit issues

Eby said he wouldn’t describe the recent de-funding of the Brunswick Connector as a communication breakdown, rather, it was the end of a contract. Tuesday, he said he wasn’t surprised by Leland and Brunswick County’s decision.

“Typically, local governments want to get the most bang for their buck,” he said. “Looking at the numbers over the years, I’m not sure it ever got to the point that it was ever worth the investment they were providing.”

As a sector, the transit industry is not glamourous, Eby said. “Transit is just down in the trenches every day, getting people to work. It’s typically a demographic that lacks, for a better word, respect.”

This perception, partnered with the difficulty in proving the value of a subsidized service, makes it difficult for transit to ask for, and in this case, receive money. “I think the return on investment on transit is difficult because it’s subsidized for a reason. If the private sector could do what we do, there’d be no need for us.”

Given all that has happened over the past year, with multiple local governing boards publicly critiquing the authority’s handling of funds, what has been going on? Eby explained in general, it’s not easy providing a public service in an area where governments overlap.

“We’re trying to be transit to multiple elected bodies that oftentimes have competing interests or competing ideologies,” he said. “As politics and politicians change, sometimes what we do has to change to meet their ideology. But we’re always here. We’re here to serve the transit needs as defined but the community,” Eby said.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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