Wave Transit could rebuild with reduced routes and ridership, new tax for city and county residents

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 is rebuilding its system by cutting routes while retaining the majority of its ridership, reviewing its governance model and seeking new funding sources. (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON – A year after the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County passed concurrent resolutions to redesign the region’s transportation system, Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority, operating as Wave Transit, is well into the process of rebuilding itself with fresh leadership, newly proposed routes and funding ideas.

Wave Transit twice requested significant stopgap funding to make up for shortfalls in fiscal year 2020. Its monetary mishaps led the city and county to restructure the system to improve its financial stability and quality of service.

Related: WAVE route rehaul decision splits county, city officials


New leadership, made up of recently appointed county and city officials, brought in the system’s previously used consultant TransPro to assist its nine-member board through the revamp. In recent months, Wave Transit has been working through the consultant’s recommendations, including cost-saving actions including cutting staff, renting out unused office space, and sharing “similar functions” with the city. TransPro did not identify a dedicated funding source.

In November, the board’s finance committee presented options to cover its financial pitfalls, including introducing a new quarter-cent increase in property tax and a new $7 county and $5 increase to the city’s motor vehicle fee.

Most recently, Wave hired a new executive director, Marie Parker, who started the week of Dec. 7.

On Monday Laura Mortell, budget director for the City of Wilmington, reported on Wave Transit’s progress to the city council. She outlined the next steps as narrowing 14 routes down to eight, maintaining the current governance model and pursuing one of a few permanent funding ideas.

Cutting routes

Wave Transit is cutting its fixed bus routes from 14 to eight. The new services will cost around $8 million to run and are expected to retain 88% of the current ridership.

“There are segments of the old routes in the new routes,” Mortell said.

Brunswick Connector is one of the routes that will cease to exist. It was discontinued after the jurisdictions it served pulled out of funding. Under the new plan, there will also no longer be a northern route traveling to the college and jail.

However, in future meetings, Mortell said there will be discussions for potentially adding on other rides.

The trolley service option was heavily considered when the Wave Transit board voted on the new framework, but it ultimately didn’t make the cut.

“It appears the majority of the Wave board does seem willing to put a version of that back in,” Mortell said.

The route could be seasonal, as data suggests it is most heavily used June through November. In that case, the cost would be an estimated $42,500 yearly, compared to a full year of service for an estimated $189,000.

The Mayfaire route would cost around $101,000 and travel in a triangle pattern through Market Street, Eastwood Road and Military Cutoff Road. It would serve in areas surrounded by upcoming development, such as The Avenue and CenterPoint projects.

Related: Six development projects to keep an eye on in 2021

Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes pointed out these areas are more “high end” and questioned what the potential real ridership is, despite Mortell noting the route would touch low-income communities on Market and Eastwood.

Other potential add-ons included College Extension, the route to Cape Fear Community College, for a cost of $149,000 per year.

Mortell said Wave staff is proposing Carolina Beach pay the full amount for the Pleasure Island route. In fiscal year 2017, Carolina Beach subsidized just 7% of the cost of the route, according to an efficiency report. The recommendation could cost the town between $59,000 to $200,000 depending on frequency.

Councilor Neil Anderson recommended they first determine where the funds are coming from for the initial eight routes before considering adding any other options.

Finding funding

Wave Transit needs to adopt a sustainable revenue source to fill an estimated $1 million to $1.3 million shortfall for the proposed design.

While it searches for that funding, the system plans to get by using $6.8 million it received in one-time CARES Act funds. The money can be distributed through March 2024.

“We do have a bridge,” Mortell said. “The system can go forward until we can get a reconciliation for the revenue that we want to put in place.”

The Wave Transit board has started discussing several options, such as a motor vehicle tax.

Mortell explained a $7 county-wide tax per resident could cover the gap. Residents of the city are already paying a $5 vehicle tax for a variety of transportation needs, meaning their tax would rise to $12.

However, city council seemed to most favor the idea of a sales tax county referendum. Mortell said adding a quarter of a cent could add up to $13.4 million.

“Let the citizens make that decision,” Mayor Bill Saffo said. “If the county would support that. I think that’s the way to go. If the citizens say absolutely not we’ll have to reconfigure where we want to go with it.”

Council member Kevin O’Grady said Wave Transit needs to “stop talking about the money, and start talking about the service” to show citizens why approving the tax would be worth it.

“The sales tax is probably the best way to fund Wave,” O’Grady said, “because it spreads the cost out over our visitors. It spreads it throughout the entire county so the city does not have to bear the burden, and it’s the best way to fund a countywide transportation service.”


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