WILMINGTON –– Downtown Wilmington agencies and “friends of the trolley” were recently granted extra time to salvage their beloved mode of transportation.
Less than two years ago, Wave Transit revised its trolley service with more stops across five downtown districts: Central Business, North Waterfront, Brooklyn Arts, Castle Street and South Front.
New Hanover County and the Arts Council of Wilmington, in partnership with Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) and the Downtown Business Alliance, backed a realignment study and pilot routes that led to today’s optimization of the trolley and a new name: the Port City Trolley.
“Our shared vision of a convenient, affordable, and accessible trolley anticipated the increasing demand for public transit by residents, workers, business owners, and visitors,” said Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of the Arts Council.
But by mid-August of this year, the service was slated for termination. Local government leaders prevented that when they recently directed Wave Transit to delay the implementation of a redesign plan that would have reduced routes from 14 to eight and cut the trolley service.
The city and county are now weighing the option of a quarter-cent transit sales tax to keep the public transportation system running, hopefully more efficiently than it is now. However, a referendum for that new revenue source won’t make it onto a ballot until 2022 at the earliest.
Through at least June 2022, the trolley will continue to operate as is, with no charge to riders. After that, its future is uncertain.
As a new concert venue opens downtown and the residential population booms, trolley advocates plan to keep pushing for the continuation of the service. Downtown businesses and agencies view the operation as more critical than ever. WDI is asking to not only save the trolley but to ramp up the service.
Currently Wave Transit operates one of two trolley buses at a time. WDI wants to see both of the new trolleys in full service simultaneously, running in 20-minute intervals rather than 40.
The organization is also campaigning for extended hours into the evenings. Currently the latest trolley runs to 6 p.m. on weekends and 8 p.m. on weekdays. Proponents said nighttime service would appeal to concertgoers, as it does to attendees of Fourth Friday art walks.
“People could just park one place and go around to all the galleries, not worry about driving,” Amy Grant, owner of Art In Bloom Gallery, said. Grant takes the trolley to-and-from her business, especially during the hot summer months, and often hands pamphlets with ride times to tourists browsing her gallery.
“For people who visit downtown, to be able to take the trolley instead of driving all around, they really appreciate that,” Grant said.
The approximate $33.6-million Riverfront Park (formerly called North Waterfront Park), set to open in late June, will begin hosting concerts with up to 7,200-person crowds starting in July. But the construction of the city-owned park includes no new parking options.
The City of Wilmington suggests concert- and park-goers who drive should park their vehicles at one of the 3,044 spaces around Red Cross Street. Otherwise, a city spokesperson said, they could use a ride-sharing service, ride bikes, or take Wave.
“We must ensure a safe, reliable means of transporting the thousands of additional visitors the park will attract,” Bellamy said. She added the trolley is an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant option, that reduces traffic on the roads and steers spenders to businesses.
WDI President Holly Childs suggested an increased frequency of the Wave trolley would invite more downtowers to utilize the service. She noted public transit is one of the top accommodations young adults look for when relocating to a city. That’s a major chunk of the workforce.
“They’re expecting public transit to be available,” Childs said, “so we really need to deliver that.”
Plus, the trolley is a “selling point” for residents of new multi-family housing downtown. In the last five years, 1,100 new condos and apartments have been built on the waterfront; ground is breaking on another 350 this summer, contributing to a downtown population projected to double in two years, according to WDI.
All this considered, support for the public transportation system is gaining momentum after several turbulent years. Elected officials of the county and city now admit they’re “on the same page” about maintaining and improving Wave. Still, it begs the question of whether there will be enough support to secure a new revenue source in an upcoming election, especially from suburban residents who might not experience firsthand any benefit of public transit.
Last month city council and commissioners discussed in a joint meeting how the income from a quarter-cent sales tax could be used in a way that would appeal to voters. If passed the tax would garner about $12 million each year, which could be dispersed to other public transportation initiatives such as a bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
Childs said WDI will support what the officials determine “makes the most sense” for funding Wave. Though she added in other cities and counties she’s lived and worked in, there has typically been a dedicated funding source for public transportation in the form of a levy or sales tax.
Other North Carolina localities either have or are struggling to bankroll their transit plans. Support is dwindling for a tax in the City of Charlotte to bring a regional transportation plan to fruition. In 2016 Wake County narrowly passed its tax referendum for transit with just over half the voters in favor.
Childs hasn’t heard any pushback from downtown businesses in regard to a sales tax in Wilmington. In fact, she said, most would prefer to maintain the trolley so as to not lose out on customers who don’t want to park and walk.
Grant is likewise open to the sales tax option, but also doesn’t mind the idea of paying for the trolley, either through a small fee per ride or membership passes.
“I would very readily pay that,” Grant said.
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