Friday, April 12, 2024

WAVE route rehaul decision splits county, city officials

WAVE transit faces financial challenges. Now, the county is preparing to walk away from its funding of public transportation. (Port City Daily photo / File)
WAVE transit will cut routes from 14 to eight, saving 24% percent in route costs and keeping 88% of its ridership. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON – The Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority (WAVE) board voted in October to accept a Florida-based consultant’s proposal to improve operations by decreasing systemwide service by 32% and reducing the number of fixed bus routes, as it searches for ways to close a $1.2 million deficit.

RELATED: ‘Major changes’ to WAVE Transit to be proposed to city council and county commissioners

The proposal split county and city appointees, with county representatives siding with the consultant. City officials had instead hoped to wait for more information before taking action, aiming to fully consider the move’s impact on current riders.

Mayor Bill Saffo and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman announced in early January that WAVE would be restructured with an eye toward financial stability and better service. A nine-member board made up of county, city and Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization personnel was appointed to lead the transit authority, and contracted with TransPro to do a cost-savings analysis and redesign the network.

At its October meeting, the board voted to accept TransPro’s proposal, cutting WAVE Transit’s fixed bus routes from 14 to eight, lowering route costs by 24%, while retaining 88% of current ridership. The proposed changes cut the deficit to slightly less than $400,000.

“This combination of infrequent service and low population density creates low productivity transit service – few riders for the money spent,” TransPro noted in its report, presented to the board in August.

New Hanover County manager Chris Coudriet, who also co-chairs the WAVE board, said the plan takes a million dollars of ineffective service off the road.

“We were looking for a more efficient system,” Coudriet said about the TransPro plan. “The eight primary routes are going to give certainty and predictability in the core and the option to add in and scale when there is a demand.”

TransPro’s report finds WAVE Transit at a crossroads, but the plan makes “changes that will provide a long-term sustainable future, both financially and operationally.”

Coudriet and three other county-appointed board members voted to move forward with TransPro’s redesigned network. All of the City of Wilmington’s representatives voted against the plan. Mike Kozlosky, Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director, was the swing vote.

“I felt we should follow the recommendation of the experts,” Kozlosky said. “It’s a starting point to set the direction of a restructured route system. There is still additional work that needs to be completed at the board level and the staff level. That route structure needs to be tested in the field.”

The new board was convened with an eye toward financial stability, but the TransPro recommendation only cites several cost-savings moves — ranging from possible staff cuts, by sharing “similar functions” with the city, county and MPO, to renting out unused office space. Yet, it does not identify a dedicated funding source. 

Coudriet said the omission was by design. The board decided to build a system that fits the region and then raise the revenue to fund it, he said.

“The revenue is a chicken or egg kind of question,” Coudriet said. “I am sure there are some who believe we should establish the revenue and then create the system. We chose the latter of building the framework.”

That decision appears to have led to the city’s opposing votes. 

Jerod Patterson, city communications director, said city appointees voted against accepting the TransPro recommendation because they wanted “to consider transit system reforms alongside the broader mandate of reforming WAVE’s governance and funding structures,” and wanted “greater consideration of their impact on customers and whether alternatives should be explored to mitigate potential negative impacts on customer service.”

Patterson said, while the board voted along city and county lines to accept TransPro’s report, both sides share the mission to reform and improve WAVE.

“Given the increasing demands on roads in our region, the city believes this is important, so that public transportation can become a meaningful part of a regional commitment to improving mobility, reducing traffic congestion, and enhancing our transportation infrastructure,” Patterson said.

WAVE is targeting July 1, 2021 for implementation of the fixed route changes, giving WAVE staff five months to study the feasibility and solicit community input because of a mandated 90-day comment period. 

The proposed fixed bus routes focus on the City of Wilmington and Monkey Junction — essentially where the current ridership lives and works — and cuts routes to Castle Hayne and across the Cape Fear River to Brunswick County. The new system will provide 18% of the ridership faster connections and increase the frequency of routes, meaning riders will see a bus every half hour instead of an hour.

“While the proposed route configuration recommends a shift, the impact to current customers’ physical access points is unchanged, while doubling the frequency of service on primary corridors,” TransPro stated in its report. “The proposed changes do not appear to disproportionately impact vulnerable populations in the community. While 79 percent of the total current service population is expected to be served by the recommended fixed route network, 88 percent of the minority population and 94 percent of households in poverty will continue to be served.”

TransPro acknowledged “mobility gaps would exist in the more rural areas of the community,” but pointed to ride sharing and “free market solutions” like Uber, which could act as on-demand connections to Forden Station, Padgett Station, and Monkey Junction. 

Courdriet said an on-demand service fills in the gaps, allowing riders a way to get into the system for areas outside of the footprint.

“While we’re not ahead of the power curve, we are going to be one of the first systems to at least pilot and determine its efficacy,” Coudriet said.

The board will meet again Tuesday to appoint a new director — who will lead the implementation effort — and it will tackle the revenue question at their Nov. 19 meeting at Forden Station. 

The new director replaces the current deputy director, Megan Matheny, who took over after former director Albert Eby left in July. Eby and the board parted after failing to come to terms on a new contract. Eby led WAVE since its creation in 2004. 

RELATED: Embattled WAVE transit’s executive director out after contract negotiations fall apart

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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