© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

WAVE mulls three options for ‘reimagined’ service while facing a $880,000 budget shortfall

Presentation slide from the Nelson\Nygaard consulting firm during a Wednesday, February 14 meeting of the WAVE board.
Benjamin Schachtman
Presentation slide from the Nelson\Nygaard consulting firm during a Wednesday, February 14 meeting of the WAVE board.

Since last summer, officials have been working on ‘Reimagine WAVE Transit,’ a short-range plan for public transit in New Hanover County. Buoyed for a time by federal pandemic relief funds, the transportation authority is once again facing a serous budget crunch, and the question of how to best serve the region. Will the short-range plan ‘reimagine’ public transportation, or leave the region with diminished service?

On Wednesday, the board of the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority — WAVE — got its first public look at three new proposals for delivering service to New Hanover County, set against the backdrop of a precipitous budget shortfall.

The proposals are part of the Reimagine WAVE Transit project, supported by Nelson\Nygaard, a consulting firm tasked with helping to develop a plan for the next four years. Officials face a familiar scenario: WAVE is suffering from poor ridership, and a funding model that has never really been updated or formalized since the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County combined their public transportation authorities in 2003.

During the pandemic, WAVE’s budget woes were temporarily soothed by an influx of federal Covid-relief funding. But, as with many local government bodies, that money is running out — and WAVE needs around $888,000 in the 2024-2025 budget cycle to keep delivering service at the current levels. (WAVE's budget for the current 2023-2024 fiscal year is roughly $11.7 million.)

Three plans presented to WAVE this week are based on a range of potential future budget situations: a ‘revenue neutral’ plan, a 30% funding decrease plan, and a 30% funding increase plan.

In a presentation to WAVE officials, consultant Keaton Wetzel focused mainly on the revenue-neutral plan, which would dramatically increase access to higher-frequency routes and reduce overlapping coverage areas. Notably, Wetzel said the plan would create “Wilmington’s first frequent service route,” providing bus service along a corridor between downtown Wilmington, the New Hanover Regional Medical Center area, and Monkey Junction, every 15 minutes.

The plan also streamlines and improves service along the Market Street corridor between downtown and Forden Station — but cuts low-ridership routes on Market Street east of College Road and along Eastwood Road. The plan proposes to provide mictrotransit service to areas no longer served by fixed bus routes. The downtown trolley would have a streamlined route between North Third and Castle Street, with a pause in service for the off-season from December through February.

It’s worth noting that, somewhat confusingly, WAVE will need to find $888,000 if it decides to go with the so-called ‘revenue neutral’ plan. New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet, who serves as WAVE board chairman, pushed Nelson\Nygaard consultants for clarity on this issue; he later confirmed to WHQR that, essentially, ‘revenue neutral’ means that with the revamped plan would cost the same as the current route system — but provide better service. In other words, whether or not WAVE made the route change to the ‘revenue neutral’ plan it would still be short roughly $888,000.

WAVE didn’t take an official vote on which plan to pursue — that’s likely to take place in April as part of the budgeting process, along with a public education campaign on the proposed changes.

However, after the presentation, Coudriet asked Wetzel to prepare a draft budget for the next two fiscal years (FY24-25 and FY25-26), starting on July 1, 2024. He asked that the budget “remain silent” on potential sources to fill WAVE’s roughly $888,000 financial hole.

The following years will face even steeper financial cliffs: $3,083,338 in fiscal year 2026 and $3,357,193 in 2027, if there's no additional funding located.

It's not clear where the funding would come from. The county has been hesitant to fund a greater share of WAVE's services; county officials have often noted that most routes are inside Wilmington city limits and that, historically, the county's obligations were for paratransit. In 2022, the county put a 1/4-cent sales tax increase on the ballot, which lost by about a 6% margin. The tax would have provided millions in annual revenue for WAVE, stabilizing its budget long-term.

If that hole can’t be filled, WAVE would be looking at the 30% reduction plan — which would mean reduced services along Princess Place, Market Street, and Carolina Beach Road, as well as in the Northside and Southside communities of Wilmington.

WAVE hopes to avoid that, according to Coudriet.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see the system contract from where it is,” he said.

As for the 30% increase plan, Coudriet said he wants the public to get acquainted with some more fundamental improvements first and see how riders react. He said he wanted to “show the public the glide path” to increased services.

Focusing on frequency

For years, officials have acknowledged that something needs to change, beyond the cuts recommended by TransPro, the consulting firm that advised WAVE during past budget crises. Back in 2021, New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, at the time a WAVE board member, was critical of the consulting firm, saying they were telling officials “what they wanted to hear,” instead of advancing plans for a meaningful overhaul.

Then-WAVE Director Marie Parker defended TransPro, saying they “I think they did the best that they could to put the service where the highest need exists.” But several former WAVE board members, in conversations with WHQR, have criticized TransPro for leading WAVE into a downward spiral, where reduced services — fewer routes, shorter hours — meant less ridership. And, while fares rarely fund public transportation, reduced ridership hurt WAVE's public image, leading some local officials to point at empty buses and ask why WAVE should continue to receive funding at all. It also hurt WAVE’s reputation with potential riders.

The three plans presented by Nelson\Nygaard approach to issue a little differently than TransPro. While there are coverage area reductions to save money, the main focus of the three plans was on providing increased frequency on routes.

According to Wetzel, Nelson\Nygaard surveyed both regular public transit users and those who rarely, if ever, take the bus; they collected 296 responses — including 192 from frequent riders, which is about 10% of WAVE’s daily fixed-route ridership).

Nelson\Nygaard also held an in-person meeting in November last year with a host of stakeholders, including the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, Carolina Beach, Wilmington Downtown, Inc., NCDOT, the Chamber of Commerce, CFCC, UNCW, Novant, the WMPO (the region’s local transportation planning agency), the Downtown Business Alliance, the Wilmington Housing Authority, the Cape Fear Housing Coalition, and the Good Shepherd Center.

Overall, Wetzel said that when it came to public transportation service, frequency was preferred to coverage almost three-to-one.

Survey respondents were willing to walk further if buses came more often — especially if they were “frequent.” Wetzel noted that with 15-minute intervals between buses, the average wait time was seven and a half minutes — often enough that riders don’t need feel they need to check a bus schedule; that level of service is a tipping point for users, he said.

The key corridors that would support more frequent bus service, according to Wetzel, were Market Street (from downtown to Forden Station), Carolina Beach Road (from downtown to Monkey Junction), College Road, Oleander Drive, and between downtown and NHRMC. Wetzel said “opinions were more mixed” when it came to Carolina Beach Road south of Monkey Junction, the eastern portion of Oleander as it becomes Military Cutoff on the way to Mayfaire, and the downtown trolley.

From the Wednesday presentation.
From the Wednesday presentation.

The revenue-neutral plan would put over 15,000 more people within walking distance of frequent service, an increase of over 117% over the current map. According to Wetzel’s presentation, that would include several important, overlapping demographics: over 1,500 households without a car, 7,000 minorities, and 6,000 residents at 150% of the poverty line or below (the poverty line is roughly $15,000 for individuals, $30,000 for a family of four).

It would also put over 18,000 more jobs within those ‘15-minute or better’ service areas, an increase of over 350% from the current routes.

See for yourself

Neslon\Nygaard created interactive maps to allow WAVE officials — and the general public — to explore what the existing routes look like, and how the three proposed new plans would be different.

Below: Presentation from Wednesday, February 14

Update: During the February 14 meeting, the initial shortfall figure was placed at $750,000. According to a WAVE spokesperson, a collective bargaining agreement " has been finalized and executed so there is now certainty regarding bus operator and maintenance personnel wages for the next three years," which means a higher shortfall of $888,170 next fiscal year.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.