Each weekday, there are more than 520,000 trips** on the region’s road network. This includes traffic from Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover counties. By 2040 that number is projected to double. That’s according to the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization, the agency responsible for regional transportation planning. As public transit agencies like Wave Transit struggle to stretch smaller budgets and improve service, it might be up to the community to choose its own transportation destiny.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Keenen Altic loads his bike onto a Wave Transit bus at Market Street and New Center Drive. He’s heading downtown to meet a friend for coffee. Altic’s been riding the bus for a year, and says while it doesn’t go everywhere, it’s helpful, and saves money. He says there are a lot of misconceptions about Wave Transit:
People think it’s dirty and something that poor people do. And it’s associated with like, third world countries or something, and it’s just unfortunate, because it can save on carbon dioxide emissions.
Choice riders like Altic may decide to ride Wave Transit because of carbon footprints. Other reasons are the economy and traffic congestion.
According to a study released this past spring by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the driving boom is over. The report claims Millennials, or those born between 1983 and 2000, are now larger in numbers than Baby Boomers. And they’re driving less. Census figures show Millennials make up about a quarter of the population in New Hanover County.
A few years ago, the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, put together a study called the Cape Fear Commutes 2035 plan. It analyzed the future of regional transportation up to the year 2035. It included a community survey. That survey found residents put bike and pedestrian access and public transit at the top of the list, followed by improvement of existing roads.
As the Wilmington MPO gears up for the 2040 plan, transportation planner Suraiya Rashid says it will use the feedback to help direct spending:
It’s a choice right now: Do people want to spend more time sitting in traffic? If that’s what people want, then we can gear most of our investments toward changes that help roadway network. There’s other option, too: If they want to start living closer to work, carpooling, biking, taking the bus, then we can try to gear our investments to make that more of a feasible option for people as well.
North Carolina plans to change the way transportation funds are dispersed, eliminating what it considers an old formula. Critics say this could put momentum behind highway spending and cut public transit funds. Wilmington City Councilwoman Laura Padgett says that while she hopes this isn’t the case, there might be a bright side:
More transportation funding responsibility is going to fall to local government. Instead of being told what roads we need, we can decide how we want to handle our transportation issues here.
Padgett says Wave Transit is an economic development tool for the region. But she says until Wave Transit operates bus routes every 15-minutes, opposed to every hour, it won’t appeal to choice riders. And running more frequently requires more funding.
Earlier this week, New Hanover County voted to cut its funding to Wave by almost half. Commissioner Jonathan Barfield sits on Wave Transit’s board and voted for the cut. He says in the long term the county won’t be a bank for Wave:
I know that the folks at Pleasure Island and Carolina Beach are happy to have new routes in their community, and that’s great. They’re serving a population there. But at the same time, you can’t continue to expand when you don’t have the resources to expand.
Because of the cuts, that Carolina Beach route Barfield refers to will likely be eliminated. Wave’s biggest challenge will always be funding. But another challenge is gaging the community’s vision of its own transportation future, and if it truly wants public transportation.
**According to a transportation planner for the Cape Fear Council of Governments, the average household takes about six trips per day. In an earlier version of this story, we cited 520,000 commuters, which is not the same as 520,000 trips.