NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County voters are likely to weigh in on a quarter-cent sales tax that would increase funding for Wave Transit in an upcoming election. The county could also extend the revenue to other public transportation initiatives, such as rapid bus lanes or new walking and bicycling trails.
The proposed referendum could appear on ballots as early as 2022. If passed, the sales tax would generate $12 million a year, solely for public transportation, according to New Hanover County Chief Financial Officer Lisa Wurtzbacher.
Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners met in a joint meeting Tuesday to discuss the option. In the past year, the two funding partners of Wave Transit have worked on an overhaul of the bus system in the wake of its near-constant financial shortfalls.
The elected officials discussed how they would gain the support of voters on the potential referendum.
“If you can tell people you’re going to start taking cars off the road, that’ll get their attention,” council member Charlie Rivenbark said.
While Commissioner Jonathan Barfield felt the focus of the revenue should remain on Wave Transit, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo suggested they could appeal to suburban voters – who may not feel they need public transportation – by promising new walking and bicycle trails.
Chief Financial Officer Wurtzbacher explained the $12 million in yearly revenue was a rather large amount for the bus system and could fund other initiatives, such as the ongoing rail realignment endeavor. The city is currently in the early stages of a major project to relocate freight and convert existing tracks into a passenger trolley.
The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is also looking into the need for bus rapid transit (BRT), which adds bus lanes and priority traffic signals to roads. Such a system would improve the reliability of local transit.
Wave Transit Director Marie Parker, who joined the system in December 2020 from GoRaleigh, said BRT was a “selling point” of a Wake County referendum in November 2016 that expanded public transit. The sales tax was approved with just over half the votes.
“We were selling that we were going to have dedicated lanes; we were going to have faster bus service; we were going to have corridors that were super efficient,” Parker said. “That was our biggest selling point to our public, and that’s kind of what swung the vote.”
Although Wake County’s BRT is still under construction through 2023, the infrastructure in place is sparking new development oriented around the transit system, Parker said.
Barfield said he could envision BRT along College Road and Market Street, but later added, “what we don’t want to do is a bait and switch,” when promoting the referendum.
Select county commissioners and city council members were assigned to a committee to discuss the issues further. The two government bodies will reconvene in full in June to consider the committee’s findings.
Also at the meeting, the commissioners directed Wave Transit to delay the implementation of a redesign that would have cut six routes, starting this August. Drafted by TransPro Consulting, Barfield criticized the firm’s recommendations, which he described as telling the board what it wanted to hear — not what it needed to know. “They were out just getting a paycheck,” Barfield said.
Per the motion, put forth by New Hanover County Vice Chair Deb Hays, Wave Transit will re-examine the route structure and not implement a redesign earlier than July 1, 2022.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the issue could be on the November 2021 ballot. The referendum could only be voted on in even years during either a primary or general election.
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