WAVE Transit’s tenuous financial future in focus ahead of budget vote

WAVE Transit’s tenuous financial future in focus ahead of budget vote

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - On Thursday, the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority (CFPTA) will vote on its Fiscal Year 2020 budget amid ongoing concerns over the transit system’s finances.

The proposed budget is $129,535 larger than the one approved for 2019, despite an expected decrease in passenger fare revenue and major losses of federal and state funding.

WAVE transit is considering cutting routes amid financial turmoil (Source: WECT).
WAVE transit is considering cutting routes amid financial turmoil (Source: WECT). (Source: WECT)

That loss is at least $388,057, according to the proposed budget ordinance, and CFPTA board member and New Hanover County Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield said losing that funding hurts.

"Trying to make up that delta is a pretty big task for WAVE,” Barfield said.

A large portion of the lost funding came due to New Hanover County losing “rural” status in the eyes of the state.

Based on the proposed budget, WAVE is projected to bring in $39,000 less in bus fare revenue compared to fiscal year 2019.

In order to make ends meet, the transit authority will have to pull $390,275 from its general fund balance — a reserve a government agency keeps on hand for emergencies.

Without a reliable fund balance, its difficult to respond to shocks, to hurricanes, to federal government shutdowns, to make short range planning much less long range planning. It comes to a point where you find yourself dining on your own innards.”
Steve Kelly, Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority

WAVE experienced a sudden loss in revenue earlier this year thanks to the extended federal government shutdown, and almost had to stop service.

During a presentation to the New Hanover County Commission, CFPTA board vice chair Steve Kelly explained the use of the fund balance in no uncertain terms.

“Without a reliable fund balance, its difficult to respond to shocks, to hurricanes, to federal government shutdowns, to make short range planning much less long range planning,” Kelly said at the June 3 meeting.

“It comes to a point where you find yourself dining on your own innards.”

Routes

Beyond the fund balance, the financial strain is likely going to require WAVE to cut some of its bus routes.

That discussion — and potential decision — could come as early as Thursday, Barfield said, adding that the cuts will have serious consequences for those who utilize WAVE services regularly.

“I know that our staff will make that presentation to us. We already have an idea based on the numbers that we see every month," Barfield said. "But no matter what you do, it’s going to be hard because it’s going to affect someone’s life. Many people utilize WAVE transit to get back and forth to work, and I would hate to see somebody’s job jeopardized because they don’t have transportation.”

Barfield couldn’t say what routes exactly were up for consideration.

Long-term consequences

A reduction in bus routes will not only be costly for the individual, but Barfield said it could have a negative effect on the Wilmington area in general.

New Hanover County Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield, Jr., who also serves on the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority, discusses the financial issues WAVE has faced in the last several years (Source: WECT).
New Hanover County Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield, Jr., who also serves on the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority, discusses the financial issues WAVE has faced in the last several years (Source: WECT).

“Any growing, prosperous city should have a thriving public transportation system,” Barfield said, referencing his daughters’ experiences in Charlotte and Chapel Hill, cities where Barfield said people are encouraged to use public transportation.

Many people utilize Wave transit to get back and forth to work, and I would hate to see somebody’s job jeopardized because they don’t have transportation.”
Jonathan Barfield, Jr.

In Wilmington, and especially in greater New Hanover County, Barfield said the vast majority of WAVE customers are not “choice” customers — meaning they have to ride the bus to get where they need to go due to transportation limitations.

While WAVE has tried to encourage more people to use its services, Barfield said the infrastructure available that causes buses to run once an hour, rather than once every 20 or 30 minutes, drastically limits the customer base willing to use it.

Cut the routes even more, he said, and you only exacerbate that problem, potentially limiting the area’s potential.

“Public transportation is vital to the success of any metropolitan city, and we are the shining hub for Southeastern North Carolina,” Barfield said, continuing: “We are the only urban city in Eastern North Carolina — Southeastern North Carolina for sure — and it’s something that’s a definite need and must continue to be vital in our community in order to remain vital and grow as well.”

Solutions

Earlier this year, WAVE proposed a possible solution to its financial troubles in the form of a vehicle registration fee.

Drivers in New Hanover County would be charged a $7 fee that would go to WAVE, and the transit authority estimates that could generate more than $1.3 million each year.

However, Barfield said his cohorts on the county commission are not fans of the proposal, and he doubts it would make it through a vote.

“I don’t think there’s an appetite, at least on my board — at least the majority of my board — to have this conversation to do that,” he said.

WAVE has put the vehicle fee question to Wilmington as well, Barfield said, but as far as the county is concerned, he doesn’t think that effort is going anywhere.

Meeting

The CFPTA will meet at noon on Thursday at WAVE’s Forden Station, located at 505 Cando Street.

Barfield said he anticipates the meeting will be unpleasant.

“As we continue to grow, you get people that are coming here from other states and cities that are expecting public transportation to get back and forth,” he said. “It’s going to really be a tough meeting and a tough conversation. One I’m not looking forward to having.”

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