The public transit system in the Cape Fear region is facing criticism from the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County – the two local governments that created it. Last week, County Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman declared at a press conference that it’s time for a reboot as she has no confidence in Wave Transit’s leadership. But one Wave official says the Board had no notice of the briefing or its content. WHQR speaks with Wave Transit Vice Chair Steven Kelly about a communication gap that has spanned years.
RLH: You say it was a “gob-stopper”. Why?
Steven Kelly: Well, it just appeared to come out of nowhere. And some of the claims made were, I think, at best, immoderate. There’s the sense of ‘heads will roll’ and that really does come out of the blue.
I’m unaware in the history of the board or in Albert [Eby’s] tenure with the Authority of any time where anybody had raised concerns about the management of the Authority. So this came as a complete surprise.
RLH: And you know that the chair’s allegations were things like – we have lots of empty buses running. She said she had no faith in the current leadership. Have you been open to a dialogue with the city and the county?
SK: Yes, and by way of explaining, just to give you a brief history of what’s transpired between the county, the city, and the authority. The authority was formed 15 years ago by a joint resolution of the county and the city and that resolution did not speak to funding in any definite way. During the 15 years since, the authority has had to come to city and the county for funding every year. There’s been no steady source of funding. That was do-able for quite a long time. We didn’t thrive, but we were able to do it by leveraging federal money and state money. And some of that money decreased. Our costs continued to increase and the contributions we got from the county and the city remained static.
And as a result of that, we found ourselves in the financial situation we were in in 2018. At that time, we produced our five-year short-term transit plan…
RLH: This was April in 2018.
SK: April of 2018. Our own diagnosis of the situation is that we were underfunded. Later in that year, September, I believe it was, the city and the county received a report from a consultant that they had engaged by the name of Transpro. That report issued in a recommendation for dedicated funding.
RLH: That was the big takeaway – we need a dedicated funding stream?
SK: That’s how I would characterize it. There were a few other recommendations about reconfiguration of routes and some other things we might do. Some of those were practical. Some of them weren’t. Where we were able to do it – where it was cost-neutral, we did. By and large, the big message that came out of that report is that Wave Transit needs a source of dedicated local funding.
RLH: What did the city and the county do with that consultant report?
SK: I don’t know.
RLH: What did the city and the county say to the board of Wave or to Wave Transit when you delivered the short-range transit plan – the five-year plan -- in April of 2018?
SK: I don’t know of any reaction one way or another from the city and the county. They had both of those reports in hand.
Our situation continued to worsen and so on March 28th , the board passed a resolution requesting dedicated funding and forwarded that resolution to the county.
RLH: The Wave board passed that resolution –
SK: That’s right. We heard nothing from the county after doing that. So in June of 2019, I took it upon myself to go and comment in the public comment period for the county commissioners’ meeting and was allowed 3 minutes, along with any other citizen, to state our case.
RLH: As Vice Chair of the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority…
SK: That’s right.
RLH: Wave Transit is a creation of the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County.
SK: That’s right.
RLH: You are Vice Chairman of Wave Transit’s Board.
SK: That’s right.
RLH: And you don’t have a channel for communications with the city and the county.
SK: There’s no formal channel.
RLH: Steven Kelly, thank you so much for being with us today.
SK: Thank you.
The biggest misconception about public transportation, according to Steven Kelly, is that it should somehow pay for itself – or go a long way towards paying for itself. Even in New York City, which has one of the most robust transportation systems in the country, government bodies still fund most of it, says Kelly.
"New York City has a population density of over 30,000 people per square mile. New Hanover County has 800. In New York City, where they run the buses full all day long, they have a fare box recovery rate of 23%. That means that the fare that’s paid at the fare box only covers 23% of the cost of transporting the passenger."
The rest, says Steven Kelly, comes from local, state, and federal governments and grants. He says Wave Transit’s fare box recovery rate is about 12%.
He also says transportation is a government service.
"I would ask that it just be regarded in the same context as other county and city services."
As examples, Kelly enumerates the museum, the library, local parks, and the Sheriff’s Office.