NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County and City of Wilmington elected officials are on board with the idea of a quarter-cent sales tax that would generate $144-plus million over 10 years for public transportation. Both are now trying to determine how it would disperse that revenue to salvage Wave Transit and appeal to residents who would vote on the referendum.
With several comprehensive pedestrian and bike plans on deck, county and city staff already identified locations to pave new trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and crosswalks with the funds. Meanwhile, Wave Transit is in the midst of a complete overhaul and in April went back to the drawing board on restructuring its routes.
In a joint meeting Tuesday, the commissioners and council members assigned the transit system another task: Create a vision of how the buses would run if it received $65 million in a decade.
Wave was also directed to draft “the best plan” for operations and name the price for that as well.
Currently, the two government bodies are planning to put the majority of the funds from the proposed sales tax –– $65 million –– toward the bus system. At this time it’s merely a recommendation that is subject to change based on what Wave Transit reports back.
It’s also contingent upon whether the local government can persuade enough taxpayers to support the sales tax in a 2022 election.
For that reason, the current plan designates more than $55 million to bike and pedestrian trails, which officials suspect will attract voters to the polls and help the referendum pass.
“It’s an enhancement of quality of life; it’s going to enhance the value of people’s neighborhoods and the value of their homes,” city council member Kevin O’Grady said. “They’ll support that.”
The sales tax would also allocate around $23 million to the city’s rail realignment, a projected $1 billion project to relocate train tracks from populated areas of the city where they currently disrupt traffic flow.
O’Grady noted visitors and tourists would also contribute to the revenue, meaning the burden wouldn’t only weigh on residents.
On Tuesday, senior staff members presented several maps proposing future trails near major corridors and connecting to popular transit routes. The bike and pedestrian routes are based on the city and county’s Greenway Plan, Cape Fear Moving Forward 2045, and the city’s comprehensive pedestrian plan, Walk Wilmington.
One map identified a multi-use path on North College Road extending from Gordon Road to Laney High School and Northchase, where a future library is planned. Another showed a portion of the proposed downtown trail from Archie Blue Community Park to Market Street, a top priority within the Greenway Plan.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo mentioned he’d prefer a path along River Road to the bridge onto Carolina Beach. “I think that would be a beautiful trail, a beautiful ride,” he said.
Staff is also considering potential trails within the beach towns, in hopes of getting those residents on board with the tax as well.
Wave Transit Executive Director Marie Parker said Tuesday she needed to further evaluate how the system could reap the most benefits from an extra $65 million. She said the proposed amount is not enough to cover the construction costs of bus rapid transit (BRT), a system of dedicated bus lanes equipped with priority traffic signals. The transit system is still eyeing BRT as a long-term possibility though.
The proposed millions also wouldn’t guarantee 15-minute headway on all routes, but Wave could achieve quicker arrival times at its highest-producing ones, Parker said.
“It all depends on where the need is,” Parker said. “We wouldn’t put 15-minute headways out there on a route that’s not highly productive.”
Several officials voiced a preference to reduce wait times at bus stops to attract “choice riders,” the term used to describe people who do not rely on public transportation but are still interested in utilizing it.
“If we had the right size resources, what can this thing be? To make my daughter want to go and catch the bus because she’d become a choice rider, although she has a car in her driveway?” Barfield said.
Parker said the money could contribute to several other improvements to the bus system, besides reduced headway. As of now, routes are starting later and ending earlier than desired, she noted. Growing Wave’s funding could increase the number of routes during busy times and extend service hours both on weekdays and on weekends.
Parker, who previously served GoRaleigh before joining Wave last year, said after voters passed a referendum in Wake County in 2016, the system almost immediately increased its bus service on Sundays.
“It was one of the largest increases in ridership we had,” Parker said, “one of the quickest turnarounds for a very low investment to show the taxpayer that we were invested in the system and to show a return.”
The two government bodies would need to decide in less than six months if they want to put the quarter-cent sales tax up for a vote in the soonest election possible: the 2022 primaries. The deadline to get on that ballot is December 2021. Otherwise, the elected officials could strive to meet the August 2022 deadline for the general election in November 2022.
Saffo noted there is still work to do. He said he wants to reach out to the delegation to advocate for more allowable uses under Article 53, the state statute that authorizes local governments to levy sales and use taxes for select transportation initiatives. He mentioned he’d like to address traffic issues with some of the money in the future.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield cautioned against this notion, redirecting the focus to Wave Transit, the catalyst behind the proposed sales tax.
“My big concern is that if you water things down, you eventually don’t accomplish your goal,” Barfield said.
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