The cost of Wave Transit: What fuels your ride?

Jun 12, 2013

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If you build it, they will come. But before that happens, someone has to pay to put it together. The City of Wilmington and New Hanover County combined transportation forces to form Wave Transit almost a decade ago. The authority was set up on its own, independent of both city and county government. It also started with no cash balance, meaning no money in the bank. In part 2 of a series on Wave Transit, we explore the financial woes of the agency.

One thing is certain about funding for public transportation: the federal government doesn’t just give it to you.

Albert Eby:

They don’t provide you a pot of money for public transportation and say, 'good luck.'

Wave’s Executive Director Albert Eby says it’s based on a matching formula. For every dollar the local government offers, the state matches it with another one, and then the federal government says, we’ll give you $2.

Where does the funding come from?
Credit WHQR News / Data provided by Wave Transit

Last year, the City of Wilmington contributed just more than $1 million to Wave. New Hanover County contributed $250,000. So that breaks down like this: the city spends about $11 per year per citizen for Wave, and the county spends just more than $1. Eby says one of Wave’s predicaments is it doesn’t know how much money it will get locally each year. That impacts state and federal contributions, which in turn, effects how much service Wave can provide. It makes long-term plans and idea difficult.

Albert Eby:

And it really makes it difficult to plan from year to year and it makes it even more difficult for our passengers to say, 'I know I can go out and get a job, cause I live here and the bus goes from close to where I live and close to where I work.' If they don’t have that trust that we’re going to be there for them long-term, it makes it more difficult for them to go out and seek out these jobs.

In talking to local officials for this story, Wave Transit’s financial situation was described as hand-to-mouth. Back in 2004 when Wave was formed, it didn’t start with pot of money sitting in the bank. It paid expenses up front and waited for reimbursement later. That’s still how it works today. But as the agency’s grown to an $8 million operating budget, it’s more challenging to work on reimbursements. This year it was so stretched it had to ask the city and county for a short term loan, just to get by. The city’s response was, fine, but what’s the county doing? The county’s was more like, why should we? In this community, most bus passengers don’t have another form of transit. Or they can’t drive. Eby says Wave’s viewed as a social service, and social services are considered a drain on government spending. And that’s not how we should view the bus.

2012 Annual Report
Credit Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority

Albert Eby:

So while it’s seen as a social service program, and a lot of the folks in the community see social service programs as you know, not an investment, whereas if it’s a transportation program it’s meeting a need for anybody, not just the people who are of a certain income level. So, perception, I think, is the huge key.

One of the goals of the county’s new budget is economic development. Wave Transit asked the city for $1.2 million, and the city plans to give that amount. Wave asked the county for $500,000, double what it got last year. County Manager Chris Coudriet recommends $140,000 Coudriet says people may not agree with the logic, but he didn’t see anything exceptional about the level of service Wave provided last year to merit an increase this year. He mentions fare increases, talk of cutting service. It just didn’t make sense to give Wave more.

Chris Coudriet:

Public transportation certainly is part and parcel of what we do long-term. But in turn, I would change the vision and ask what is public transportation, Wave particularly, what is its vision long-term that parallels with both the efforts of both the city and the county and the beach communities about the kind of community that elected leadership is trying to create?

Wilmington City Councilwoman Laura Padgett thinks public transportation should be intertwined into the vision. She says public transportation is an economic development tool. And it’s a shame the county proposes cuts, because they should be contributing more.

Laura Padgett:

More and more, the county actually should be taking more responsibility than the city for public transportation, because those are their citizens. The route to Carolina Beach is obviously serving people outside of the Wilmington. The area along Gordon Road, which is a very well-used route and has been improved is also significant to the area that’s outside of the city.

Wave officials say the likely cut in county funding could eliminate two routes: that new Carolina Beach bus, and another route extending outside city lines, into the county, making stops at Cape Fear Community College, to the new VA Center and the prison.

Laura Padgett:

If we want it, we’re going to have to pay for it, and I think the responsibility is going to fall more and more on the local area. And that’s why a lot of areas have passed a quarter-cent sales tax. That’s been the chief funding mechanism.

Charlotte voters approved this idea to pay for the expansion of its light rail system. Triangle-area residents voted favorably for the same idea. That’s an option New Hanover County has, too. Commissioners can propose either a vehicle license fee or an increase in sales tax to help pay for Wave, it could mean a healthy fund balance. Councilwoman Padgett thinks voters would support it, but New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield disagrees. When asked if commissioners were even talking about this as a possibility, he says, no. But as the county’s population swells above 200,000 people, bumping the community into urban area status, and as projected growth puts more stress on the traffic grid, the region might have to reconsider its perception of public transit.