Sunday, September 24, 2023

Wave Transit no longer to cut routes

After scrapping previous plan, leadership offers expanded footprint, increased service frequency

Wave Transit will expand its footprint and offer higher frequency routes due in part to added federal funds. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Wave Transit is once again taking a stab at redesigning its network to better suit the needs of its riders. This time it will offer more options instead of fewer. 

The board of directors unanimously voted Feb. 8 to upgrade its current public transportation network. 

Following a two-year process with an initial goal of cutting back routes and frequencies, the board is taking a more proactive approach to increase service, due to supplemental federal funding.

The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) announced an additional $108 billion allocated for public transportation under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed in November. The new legislation increases Wave Transit’s federal formula for funding by about $700,000 annually.  

All transit authorities’ budgets rely on a federal formula, where the FTA takes into account U.S. Census Bureau data, geographical size of locations and each organization’s annual reported numbers, according to Cape Fear Public Transit Authority mobility manager Brianna D’Itri.

With an average operating budget of $9.5 million, Wave Transit will earn the same amount of extra federal funds over the next five years. It also was awarded nearly $7 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, as it was deemed an essential service and continued to operate during the pandemic. Another roughly $4 million was allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act.

According to its monthly operating statistics, Wave Transit’s ridership is down nearly 40% from fiscal year 2019. It was around this time funding became an increasing issue with ridership declining and loss of federal subsidies. As a result, the board of directors and executive director Albert Eby were ousted. Consultant TransPro was hired to find ways to stabilize the transportation system and find more efficient and fixed revenue streams.

A new board was appointed in 2020, made up of mainly county and city officials, and Marie Parker was hired as the new executive director.

“The charge for the board of directors was for Wave Transit to become independently financially sustainable,” D’Itri said. “Through several iterations and many maps, they had a very long discussion about how to make that happen, what routes to tweak, how to adequately use resources and what areas are served in what ways.”

In November 2021, Wave Transit’s board of directors put in place a long-term solution for sustainable funding. Part of it included implementing a 5% reduction in revenue hours, with a goal to reach financial independence by fiscal year 2028. The public transportation authority’s plan would have decreased the number of routes from 14 to eight but received pushback from frequent user complaints. The City of Wilmington and New Hanover County urged Wave leadership to rework its strategy: to still save money while maintaining its existing service.

D’itri added those discussions are now “null and void.”

With that in mind, the Wave board released the fiscal year 2023 system map, which expands its footprint, increases frequency on 30% of fixed routes and relies more heavily on its on-demand RideMICRO program.

Wave Transit implemented RideMICRO as a pilot program in October. The method is similar to rideshare apps and transports passengers via large SUV or 14-person van to requested destinations for $2. It allows travelers to track their requested rides in real-time.

The on-demand microtransit service is available for areas outside Wave’s fixed routes. Individuals can book rides to over 3,500 designated “virtual stops” — select map coordinates that coincide with popular intersections and shopping centers. 

This already connects portions of Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties. If the plan is adopted, it will expand into northern New Hanover County and southern New Hanover County, effective July 3, 2022. This will cover areas that were recently cut due to lack of funding, such as the Brunswick Connector and those traveling to UNCW and the New Hanover County Correctional Facility.

“We are able to move forward with not just our existing model but a better model that includes higher frequencies,” D’Itri explained.

Wave Transit’s fiscal year 2023 system map proposal, with insight from TransPro consulting, would take effect in July. It would:

  •  Retain current urban core network
  •  Replace routes 207 North and 301 Pleasure Island with an on-demand microtransit service delivery model
  •  Introduce 30-minute service frequencies on three routes, including Route 108 Market Street, Route 201 Carolina Beach Road, and Route 205 Long Leaf Park
  •  Offer 60-minute continuous, uninterrupted frequencies for Route 107 College Road
  •  Revise Route 104 East offering transit service on Market Street east of College Road for the first time, and shifting coverage of Gordon Road and North College Road to the flexible microtransit service
  •  Interline Route 107 College Road and Route 201 Carolina Beach Road at Monkey Junction, reducing transfers 
  •  Implement a seasonal trolley schedule, reallocating resources to the most productive hours

READ MORE: Rerouting: Wave Transit seeks input on upcoming changes

Based on a May 2021 community survey, Wave Transit collected 296 responses and the majority self-identified as Wave’s target audience: residents over the age of 65 and people with disabilities. Ninety-three percent responded it is very important for Wave to continue to provide transportation services, with 85% requesting safer, more accessible bus stops. Many respondents also expressed the need for more community education about public transportation and additional options for low-income residents.

“We try not to do anything without a public comment period,” D’Itri said. “We want to hear from our passengers. If there’s a trend, or something that’s massive and damaging to our passengers, we’re able to get the feedback and analyze and make changes, if necessary.”

The public comment period on Wave Transit’s revised plan is open through 5 p.m. Apr. 12. Feedback can be sent online or in-person at Forden and Padgett stations. There will be two public hearings held as well; dates have not yet been announced. A finalized network redesign will be presented to the board for approval at its April meeting.

“Staff has dedicated a lot of work and energy into creating a mass transit system that better serves our existing customers, as well as providing transportation options for those citizens that live in unserved areas of the county,” executive director Marie Parker said. “Effective July, over 100,000 citizens in the community will have new access or improved access to transportation.”

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