Thursday, December 1, 2022

New microtransit program could reestablish lost New Hanover-Brunswick public connection

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)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– Less than a year after the only truly public transportation option across the Cape Fear River folded, transit leaders may have found an alternative, more cost-efficient solution. 

Wave Transit and Brunswick Transit System, Inc. (BTS) are jointly applying for state funding to operate a temporary microtransit system, with Wave serving as the lead agency. 

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

If approved, the system would more closely resemble ride-sharing services than the traditional, big-bus, fixed-route service users are familiar with. 

It would be available on an on-demand basis, likely cost less per rider than typical ride-sharing services, and fill service area gaps in both New Hanover and Brunswick counties. 

Using a van, minivan, or a small shuttle, the system may opt to develop virtual bus stops, establishing a connection to areas where there is little-to-no access.

“We’ll be able to serve more people in a larger area in a less expensive way,” said Marie Parker, Wave’s executive director. “The hope is that we are much more efficient, much more responsive and adaptive, and we can identify areas we hadn’t previously identified.”

Over-subsidized, under-used

After 16 years in service, Wave buses took their last trip on Route 204 last August. The route began to fall apart after Wave didn’t share a solid figure for Town of Leland officials to include in their early budget process. Once the figure came in $10,000 over the around $50,000 the town had grown accustomed to paying, council opted to back out, prompting Brunswick County and Navassa to pull back as well, not inclined to pick up the growing funding gap.

The route relied on revenue from the local governments –– the Brunswick Consortium –– which covered about one-third of the total cost; state, federal, and local fares made up the rest.   

In fiscal year 2019-2020, the Brunswick Connector was Wave’s second least-traveled and third-highest subsidized route, costing $12.49 per rider, at 18,125 rides. Garnering about six riders an hour, buses made 12 daily trips between Brunswick County and Wilmington. 

The financial fallout impacted an estimated 200 dedicated riders. At its peak, the route made 29,000 annual trips six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to Parker. 

Parker took on the role of Wave’s director in December after contract negotiations with Wave’s longtime director Albert Eby fell apart in July 2020. The system underwent a crisis overhaul in 2019-2020, after it asked for more money from Wilmington and New Hanover County for the umpteenth time, drawing the ire of local officials who had enough of the perceived financial mismanagement, and voted to dismantle the board instead. Now, with a reorganized board, officials are floating the prospect of a county-wide, quarter-cent tax increase to cover Wave’s chronic funding gaps.

Though there had been talks since her arrival to resuscitate the route, Parker said re-establishing the connection wasn’t immediately a viable option. “I think the timeliness of everything, we were heading into service reductions, we had not identified any source of future revenue, dedicated funding source so I don’t think the timing was a great time to re-establish that service,” she said. 

Earlier this year, the N.C. Department of Transportation officials contacted Wave to assist with transportation to vaccination sites. Eventually, state officials realized the application-award process would take longer than was needed to support the project. From there, Parker helped reimagine the funds to go toward a new, microtransit project. 

Under the current plans, Wave would use $100,000 in NCDOT community transportation funds initially slated for the vaccination trips and up to $200,000 in Consolidation and Coordination of Public Transportation Systems (ConCPT) Program funds to finance the one-year microtransit program. Brunswick Transit System would also receive up to $200,000 for the project. 

Parker said both systems are working to complete the application and should find out next month whether they are approved. Though NCDOT representatives are encouraging them to apply, Parker added “it’s not a sure thing.”

While Wave currently offers a needs-based paratransit, demand-response service in New Hanover County, the microtransit program would open up rides to anyone who requested them. Wave also doesn’t reach into rural areas of the county through its traditional fixed-route options, like Castle Hayne. This area could be serviced across town –– not necessarily across the river –– with the new program as well, Parker explained. 

“Secondarily, it will reestablish that connectivity and create that bridge again between us and Brunswick County.” 

If the coordinated program proves there’s a significant need after the first pilot year, NCDOT may opt to continue funding or partially fund it for a few years until it becomes stable and self-sufficient on alternative revenue sources. 

Filling the rural-urban gap

Yvonne Hatcher, executive director for BTS, said even one year of the program is better than nothing. “For us, in not having anything there that we’re able to offer, we’re still very, very excited,” Hatcher said. “We see it as a year to provide something that gives us live data.”

The majority of BTS’s ridership is elderly, and less likely to participate in online surveys, which transit systems use to gauge whether there’s demand in a given area. 

“This is not sending out 1,000 surveys and asking people, ‘Would you use this if it was available?’” Hatcher said. “This is people actually being able to use it and we can count the numbers, and we can see where they’re coming from and where they’re going and we can build on it.”

Making 55,000 trips a year covering a 900-square-mile service area, BTS has no fixed routes and runs on an entirely demand-response model. 

“You never know where somebody’s going to be and where they need to go,” Hatcher explained. “Even if I have a seat available, but the bus is in Calabash and somebody from Ash calls, I can’t send the same bus and have somebody ride around for three hours.”

Brunswick’s widespread physical geography is also complicated by its proximity to two metropolitan areas –– Wilmington and Myrtle Beach –– amid an expansive rural landscape. 

As a non-profit transit organization (as opposed to a government-created authority, like Wave), BTS can’t readily obtain public urban transportation funding. On the ground, that means Leland-based riders can hitch a ride to a doctor’s appointment in a rural area, but not to one in town. Determined by the U.S. Census Bureau, rural-urban designations mean BTS’s rural-funded vans must make at least one stop on a two-stop trip in a rural location.

“I can’t use my rural money in that area,” Hatcher explained of northern Brunswick County. 

 BTS makes two weekly trips into Wilmington, but again, the rides must originate from urban areas. The arrangement leaves service gaps for disabled or senior riders in Brunswick County. Hatcher said she can sometimes send out a vehicle that isn’t using public rural dollars to help out riders on a case-by-case basis. The convoluted patchwork of funding rules and diverse service area interferes with BTS’s ability to fill all gaps.  

“We’re dealing with two different [Metropolitan Planning Organizations], a rural planning organization, and two different states. It’s very complicated –– and we’re a nonprofit,” she said. “It’s all over the place. 

Nearly 20% of BTS’s rides are public; the rest are contract-based, with partners like the Department of Social Services, Brunswick Senior Resources, Inc., and Brunswick Community College. Hatcher receives in-kind administrative support from Brunswick County and uses county land for her 19-vehicle fleet in Shallotte, but relies on contract and public, rural funding sources to cover expenses. 

With service down due to the pandemic, “part of my fleet sits every day,” she said. 

The nonprofit paid for a transportation study last year that wrapped up before the Brunswick Connector sunsetted. Even so, Hatcher said the consultant’s recommendation was to look into alternative transportation ideals like ride-sharing or look to service areas –– exactly what the proposed microtransit project will accomplish. 

“For us it’s going to be a year of, really, data and fact-gathering used to build future projects,” she said. 

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

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