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WAVE will keep existing service level; officials consider growth with possible transit bond

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Affordable housing and public transportation dominated the discussion at the Tuesday, April 27 joint meeting between Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County. The biggest news of the day: WAVE transit won’t lose any bus lines this summer — and could actually expand its operations down the road.

That’s because Commissioner Deb Hayes led a vote to forestall the planned cuts, which were set to take effect in the summer.

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman agreed, and suggested WAVE should even grow in the future: a flip from her previous votes to end the county’s funding for WAVE and to cut services under the advice of TransPro Consulting.

“I know the funding commitments by the county and the city are not enough to fund the type of system we need and want,” she said at the joint meeting. “So while WAVE develops the best system for our community, the county and city must work together to determine a dedicated funding source to ensure the new system is achievable and viable, well into the future.”

That motion passed unanimously, and launched a discussion of a transportation bond -- one which would create $12 million of funding each year at the cost of a quarter-cent sale’s tax.

WAVE Executive Director Marie Parker said the $12 million could go a long way, both with infrastructure like bike and pedestrian paths and with funding the operating costs of WAVE with expanded services.

Much of the commission voiced support for the proposed tax, particularly if it’s used to create Parker’s suggested bus rapid transit system. Such systems are often compared to light rail for their speed and frequency, as they operate in separate lanes from car traffic with their own traffic signals.

Commissioners Jonathan Barfield said he could picture BRT systems on major corridors throughout the area, including College Road and Market Street.

“It makes it more efficient and creates more choice riders when you know you’ll get there a lot quicker,” Barfield said. He added that he’d like the $12 million in dedicated funding to focus on WAVE transit, not on other elements of transportation.

Wilmington City Councilor Charles Rivenbark also voiced support for the sales tax, and suggested it might gain support even from those who won’t use the transit system. “When you sell that bond, you tell people out in the unincorporated areas that you're going to that you're working toward taking cars off the road, I think that that's something they can identify with,” he said.

Parker, who was previously the general manager at GoRaleigh, said that town was able to pass a transit referendum in 2017.

“Our biggest selling point in Raleigh, where we were able to get that referendum passed, was BRT, so the bus rapid transit,” she said. “The bus rapid transit where we were selling that we were going to have dedicated lanes, we were going to have faster, faster bus service, we were going to have corridors that were super efficient, that was our biggest selling point to our public.”

BRT may lead to economic development as well, in the form of “transit-oriented developments,” Parker said. “People actually move into that area and they build businesses and retail around it.”

The council and commission then created an ad-hoc committee to continue discussion around funding WAVE, and decided to meet again in June.