Opioid epidemic discussed at largest yearly gathering of NC transportation leaders

Opioid epidemic discussed at largest yearly gathering of NC transportation leaders
More than 100 transit leaders from rural, urban, and regional systems will gather to train, discuss, and network with other leaders. (SOURCE: WECT)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The North Carolina Public Transportation Association is holding a conference and expo in downtown Wilmington April 23-25, and discussions on a wide variety of topics are planned.

This is the "largest gathering of North Carolina public transportation professionals & industry leaders this year," according to the group's website.

More than 100 transit leaders from rural, urban, and regional systems will gather to train, discuss, and network with other leaders.

The opioid crisis and public transportation

Olivia Herndon, director of continuing education, mental health, and public health at the South East Area Health Education Center, gave a presentation explaining the link between the opioid epidemic and public transportation in Wilmington.

"This epidemic is not about opioids. It's about systems, and about the systems that are broken," said Herndon. "If we do not address all of those reasons that people are addicted, if we don't get to that root cause, we're not ever going to fix this."

Transportation leaders need to be present at discussions with health systems and vice versa, said Herndon.

"So if you're a transportation system, do you know who the most-utilized service providers are in your region? Do you have frequent stops around their organizations? Do you have frequent stops at highly-utilized times at their organizations?" said Herndon.

"I think about people in recovery, and utilizing meetings," Herndon added. "A lot of times, meetings happen in the evening, because that's when the majority of people are able to go. So do you have adequate transportation to get people there at the right time when they need it? If not, look at your routes. Look at your schedules."

Herndon has been working with a team to address the opioid epidemic by encouraging collaboration between community stakeholders, including business, government, law enforcement, faith-based communities, transportation, and more.

The community's work to fight opioid abuse in Wilmington seems to be making a dent, according to Herndon.

From January to March 2017, New Hanover County first responders had 124 overdose calls, according to data provided by Herndon in her presentation.

From January to March 2018, that number fell to 79 overdose calls.

In New Hanover County, 46 people died from heroin-related overdose in 2016, and 19 died in 2017 from heroin-related overdoses, according to provisional data from North Carolina Injury and Prevention.

From 2016 to 2017, heroin-related deaths declined in New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick, and Columbus counties.

Fentanyl-related deaths declined slightly in Pender, Brunswick, and Columbus counties, but increased from 37 to 38 deaths in New Hanover County from 2016 to 2017.

"We could have the best treatment facilities, the best health facilities in the country," said Herndon, "but if we don't have transportation to get people there, it doesn't matter. They won't be utilized, they won't be accessed, and people won't get help."

WAVE Transit adding new buses to fleet

Alberty Eby, executive director of WAVE Transit, attended the conference and said nine buses will soon roll out in Wilmington thanks to a $3.6 million federal grant won earlier this month and the payout of a national Volkswagen settlement.

"WAVE Transit is the only major transit system in North Carolina that's running on compressed natural gas," said Eby. "Cleaner for the environment, the [compressed natural gas] engines are also quieter than the diesel engines, so there's a lot of advantages to the area."

The original fleet of WAVE buses was purchased in 2003, according to Eby.

"We do currently have about six big buses that use [compressed natural gas]," said Eby.

The first of the new buses will roll out in May 2019, according to Eby.

Each new bus costs about $500,000 and has a lifespan of 500,000 miles.

"You also get the whole package, new vehicle, new technology, much better for our passengers," said Eby. "We have an app, a mobile app, that tells our passengers where the buses are at all times. You can see it. You can plan your trip."

About 1.5 million people ride WAVE transit transportation each year, said Eby.

"Some of these things are generational things," said Eby. "As folks come in, the next generation comes up, they're more relying on transit and they understand transit, a little more willing to undertake the transit experience."

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