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Deep Dive: Can WAVE transit outrun its toxic past, and turn things around for public transit?

WAVE Transit
New Hanover County

In a surprise move last month, the New Hanover County Commissioners cancelled their previous plan to slash WAVE transit’s budget. The ground is shifting for public transit on the Cape Fear: but how do riders feel about the changes?

Part I
Part II

Howard Gardener drives the 301 bus for Wave transit: a 7-mile round trip from the Monkey Junction Walmart to Pleasure Island and back, with service running every three hours.

Gardener has worked for Wave for nearly 2 decades, and has seen how ridership has changed over the years.

“When I started in like 2004. The buses were crowded, and you had more buses running, but they didn't go that far. They went in a small little circle.”

In 2005, Wave had 1.6 million total passenger trips in 2005, but that had dropped to 1.3 million by 2018. That’s despite New Hanover County's population increasing 26% in that time.

Overall Wave ridership decreased by 3.81% from FY 17 to FY 18, representing a continuing trend in Wave ridership. The decrease is less than the national average of 5.0%.

Gardener is from New York, and used to drive a bus there too. He said the traffic in Wilmington doesn’t compare to NYC, but that’s changing.

“This system is growing, and it’s not quite set up for that,” Gardener said. “But I love it here. It's like a day off working here compared to [New York]. But it’s getting there though, the traffic's increasing daily. I don't know if the infrastructure is set up for what's coming."

Passengers took a total of 51,000 trips in March of this year, according to the latest Wave statistics.

And with an average fare of just under a dollar, it’s not possible for riders to fully cover the costs of fuel, wages, and other expenses.

Fares represented only 11% of Wave’s revenues of $8.8 million last year. Despite getting roughly $5 million from the federal government, Wilmington’s transit system, like that of all cities, needs to be subsidized by the local government.

In New York City for example, subway and bus fares cover only 14% of the system's operation cost. In San Francisco, it’s 16%. In Raleigh, under 14%.

But to Gardeners, transit doesn’t have to be a moneymaker.

“I mean, it's another way of getting around. Everybody doesn't have cars. Everybody doesn't have a license. You know? I've been doing it for years. Yeah, I believe in [public transit]," he said.

Getting ridership back up is a matter of creating a service that actually draws in riders. Experts say that kind of high-caliber service is defined by three qualities: reliability, frequency, and ease of use.

But a service like that costs money. And right now, Wave’s system is small, runs infrequently, is limited on weekends, and doesn’t run later than 8 p.m. Its annual budget in 2020 was even smaller than Asheville’s, despite serving a larger community. And last year, the city and county put in just $2 million combined- the vast majority coming from Wilmington.

Funding Woes

The source and size of the local subsidy for Wave have never been officially defined. Since Wave became regional in 2004, it’s never had a consistent, dependable source of revenue.

County Commissioner Rob Zapple said it’s long been a political headache “The funding right out the chute was, you know, well, we'll give a little and the city said, well, we'll give a lot. And it never got balanced out.”

Every year, Wilmington and New Hanover County decide how much financial support they’re going to provide, leaving Wave with an unstable funding source and limited ability for forward planning. As operating costs have increased, that’s created political tensions, particularly with the county.

Zapple said a history of somewhat irresponsible finances at Wave led to some bad blood. One commissioner at the time, Woody White, decided to take the transit system on.

“And so he got his votes together. In that case, it was Julia [Olson-Boseman] and Pat Kusek and him, and they did away with the Wave board.”

Related: Hear an in-depth interview with WAVE leaders from CoastLine

The county commission had had enough after Wave asked for last-minute funding one too many times. For Commissioner Julia Olson-Boseman, the last straw was when Wave spent its emergency fund without telling the county about it.

“They came to us as commissioners when I was commissioner and said, ‘we spent all the money, we didn't tell you, give us some more.’” Olson-Boseman said, exasperated. “And they did it twice. I was like, if my 10 year old would have done that, I would have taken his iPad away! We said no! It just didn't make sense to me. So we needed new leadership for me to have faith in giving Wave more money.”

The Wave board was largely replaced the Wave board with elected officials and county staff, and the new leadership laid plans to cut the system’s services significantly. The county cut funding, and the previous director, Albert Eby, was ousted last summer during contract negotiations.

And late last year, the new Wave board, now entirely comprised of city and county staff and officials, officially voted to reduce services and cut routes. Those cuts were scheduled for this summer, and riders dreaded the change.

But Commissioners Woody White and Pat Kusek decided not to run again. Instead, two new Republicans came in: Deb Hays and Bill Rivenbark. Neither had a grudge against Wave, and things started to change behind the scenes.

At a joint meeting of the city council and the county commissioners in April, Chair Julia Olson-Boseman announced a surprising change of heart.

“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 April 27 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.”

Olson-Boseman said the original choice to cut Wave came out of her utter lack of faith in the leadership at the organization. But with the hiring of a new executive director, Marie Parker, things have changed.

“It's a service that we need,” Olson-Boseman said. “I think it needs to be run better, and I'm very excited that Ms. Parker is over there now.”

A vision of transit’s future

Hannah Breisinger
WAVE Executive Director Marie Parke

Behind the scenes, Parker has been whispering in public officials’ ears about the beauty and importance of public transportation.

“Since I've been here, I've tried to make it a point to meet with everyone and try to tell them my vision,” Parker said. “Wilmington is growing. We need to establish this huge network.”

Those meetings helped convince Olson-Boseman. “We've had some really frank conversations,” she said. “She's told me what is wrong with our system, and that you can't expect to have a great system if it's not adequately funded.”

Parker believes a growing city needs good public transit systems to function. Buses, trains and paratransit- transportation for those with disabilities- get the residents where they need to go: safely, cheaply, and without adding much traffic or air pollution.

“I think we need to be growing at the same pace, or at least attempting to grow at the same pace as the city so that we're not burdened with traffic and congestion and failing roads five to ten years from now,” she said. Roads are subsidized by public dollars- by 35% in North Carolina - so why should public transit be required to pay for itself?

To Parker, a robust transit system is what makes a modern city function. That’s what advocates say: the more people riding buses, taking bikes, or walking, the less problems with traffic the city will have.

A lot of locals don’t have the exposure to a high-functioning system like that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible here, Parker said. “I guess it's kind of far-fetched right now, it's not something that's really realistic for maybe a city of this size, but it can be.”

Her passion appears to be infectious. Half a year after Wave hired Parker, Olson-Boseman cancelled the cuts to Wave with a unanimous county commission vote. And the city and county may now bring a quarter-cent sales tax to the voters to consistently fund public transit. It would raise $12 million a year for Wave and other transportation projects, and Parker has big plans for what that money could do.

That new funding for Wave could make a lot of projects possible that just weren’t in the cards before. Executive Director Marie Parker lays it out.

“On a granular level, you're talking about taking a route that currently runs at an hour and just making it a 30-minute route. You're basically doubling all the service that you're putting out,” Parker said. “In addition to that, we have pockets all over New Hanover County that have never had transit or that are in need of transit potentially, where we've had a lot of growth that has happened in suburban areas that would benefit from a commuter route.”

She also mentioned microtransit, an entertainment circulator to serve tourists and bar patrons, and spreading out into Brunswick County. All these efforts are aimed at bringing in new riders, and the increased frequency should help current riders, too.

The view from the bus station

Kelly Kenoyer

At the new Laura Padgett bus depot downtown, half a dozen riders mill around on a windy May morning waiting to make transfers or get on their first bus for the day. It’s a cross section of Wilmingtonians: everyone from restaurant and construction workers to students and retirees.

Erica Fraser hops on the 201 route to go to work at the McDonald’s on Carolina Beach Road. The bus is clean, she says, and not too crowded- she shares the vehicle with just three or four others. The system works pretty well for her, unless she’s working weekends.

“Saturday and Sunday, you can't get a bus till 9. So that leaves me walking to work.”

She said it’s a 30-to-40-minute walk on weekends--and on weekdays, too if she misses the one bus that comes an hour.

“Twice an hour will probably be better,” she said.

It costs most riders $2 a trip to ride the bus. It’s half that for retirees and the disabled, and free for UNCW students. For those who take the bus to and from work each day, the commute costs $20 to $25 a week.

Many riders are still expecting service cuts rather than ever seeing any new routes or frequency. Although the county voted to delay service cuts, signs are still up in many buses noting the now cancelled route changes.

But for rider Stepen Lilly, even the current routes aren’t adequate. He lives out near Castle Hayne, and his area has no bus service.

“I would say it's probably a four or five mile walk [to the nearest bus stop]. It’s a good little hike,” he said. “They should just include all of that. I wish they would.”

Lilly said he’s excited by the prospect of longer hours for bus services.

Wave Executive Director Marie Parker said that kind of coverage could be key in attracting more riders.

“Frequency and speed are two of the biggest factors in the success of a transportation system. You need to be competitive to somebody taking their car.”

The Dream of BRT

Parker has floated an interesting solution: Bus Rapid Transit, the gold standard of bus service known for its speed, frequency, and specialized loading platforms.

John Tallmadge, the executive director of Bike Durham and a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill, said BRT feels quite different from the stereotypical city bus.

“When the high-quality investments are made, it feels like a typical light rail system,” he said.

Tallmadge said BRT at the highest level of investment comes with level loading docks, an innovation useful for those with mobility issues. And it’s often ticketless to avoid wasting time with passengers slowly loading onto the bus.

In cities like Richmond, VA, and Alexandria, VA, the rapid transit buses have a dedicated right of way and come every 10 minutes during peak hours.

“You don't really have to know a schedule and arrange your trip around the schedule of the service. It's reliable, it's always there,” Tallmadge said. “And when it's done right, it’s always there at night, and on the weekends, as well as the middle of the day.”

Those systems exist in cities across the U.S., from Oregon to Texas to Ohio. And one will soon be coming to North Carolina: Voters in Raleigh approved funding that will develop four fully functional BRT lines by 2030.

Such a system is hard for a lot of Wave passengers to imagine. Nothing like it currently exists in North Carolina. It can be hard to imagine infrastructure one has never seen in person: A fast, separated bus lane that comes every ten minutes. It could serve tourists as well as commuters, and run late at night to prevent DUIs and serve the bar crowd.

Done right, BRT is faster and cheaper than ordering an Uber, and still gives riders a lot of flexibility.

Howard Gardener, the Wave bus driver, experienced it in New York City and thinks there are plenty of routes that could benefit from BRT: Carolina Beach Road, for starters.

He also wants more frequency on some routes that only come a few times a day. Route 301 Pleasure Island runs just every three hours.

That means a rider who’s just running errands will have to wait around in Carolina Beach for hours before they can go home. Gardener wants better for his riders, and figures tourists would benefit, too.

“In summertime it should be a separate shuttle, and make the frequency every hour,” Gardener suggested.

And he wants to serve more of the community, to help out riders like Lilly in Castle Hayne. Porters Neck and Brunswick County are both opportunities for growth, he said.

“People that come here, they’ve been to other cities and they see their transit system,” Gardener said. “They kind of rate the town on what they see.”

Gardener is a true believer in public transit. To him, it’s a defining feature of a city. He dreams of the day a light rail service comes to Wilmington, with bus service across the river to bring his family to visit.

But the dream of BRT is at least 10 years away for Wilmington. The $12 million dollars from the recently proposed 1/4 cent sales tax has already been portioned out by city staff, and less than half of it will go to Wave. The tax revenue is set to be spread among numerous projects, mostly new walking and biking trails. Elected officials believe that will help the tax pass when it comes to a vote.

But the limited funding means it will take more time for WAVE to buy new buses and increase frequency or expand routes.

Parker said the first year after the tax is instituted probably won’t see any new frequency for routes, as she’ll have to sock away funding for new buses. But the system may start running later at night as soon as the tax goes into effect.

And it’s possible the new paths will help get people interested in using transit, as it will be safer to get to a bus stop. “The bike lanes, and the walking paths and everything else will form around the public transportation,” Parker said.

BRT doesn’t factor into the ten-year plan — and it’s expensive to build. But a consistent revenue source is a good start, and can make it easier to get grants and leverage funding to make better use of local tax dollars.

Parker hopes the revenue from the tax will help her create a system everyone wants to ride. And maybe in 10 years, the political willpower will be there to make the dream of BRT a reality.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.