Transportation
6:00 am
Thu June 6, 2013

Wave Transit and the passenger: A modern chicken & egg story

It’s late Tuesday morning. I’m standing in front of Carolina Farmin’ on Market Street, waiting for the 108 bus. I’ve never taken the bus because I drive everywhere, even though there’s a bus stop 7 minutes from my house. I’m considered a choice rider – I don’t have to ride, but I choose to. Here’s what I’ve noticed about the bus as a person who never takes the bus: it looks difficult and inconvenient. There aren’t a lot of bus shelters or sidewalks. Sometimes I see passengers hurling their bodies across busy streets. Sometimes buses look empty. I pay my $2 fare, and climb aboard. I count about 10 passengers.

I’m headed to Forden Station, Wave’s main terminal located near Corning, and I meet Brian Creech and David Brewer.

Brian Creech and David Brewer
Brian Creech and David Brewer

Both are considered transit-dependent -- they rely on the bus to get everywhere. Both are on their way to Vocational Rehab orientation on Randall Parkway. They’re going to learn about job training and placement. David says he planned his trip an hour in advance. He doesn’t have a car, but says the bus isn’t so bad.

David Brewer: It’s fairly inexpensive and convenient. I’m well-pleased.

Brian’s license is suspended. He says the bus is alright, but he can’t wait to drive again. He says the system’s not very convenient, mostly because the buses only operate on the hour. I ask Brian if he thinks choice riders would take the bus over a car.

Brian Creech: No. I don’t see it happening. I mean, a lot of people want to go when they want to go, and you don’t want to wait on something all the time.

Inside Forden Station
Inside Forden Station

When we get to Forden Station, the bus David and Brian need to catch to Vocational Rehab should be there. But it doesn’t pull up until two minutes before orientation starts.

Albert Eby: That’s really the paradox...

Albert Eby is the executive director of Wave Transit. He’s been involved with regional transportation since the 1980s.

Albert Eby: To capture the choice riders, the service has to be not only efficient, economical, it has to be on-time, it has to be close enough to their place of residence, and their place of business where it’s too far for them to walk.

And it’s expensive to provide that kind of service.

Albert Eby: We don’t offer the efficiency or the convenience that’s necessary for those folks to go out to the elected officials and say we want a public transportation system that we can utilize.  It’s a transportation program, yes. When we’re providing service to folks who can’t afford transportation of their own, then to a large degree, it is a social service program.

Funding for public transportation is a complicated dance between federal, state and local governments, but there’s a simple formula: more funding means more service. Back in March, Wave Transit was stretched for cash. It asked the Wilmington City Council and the New Hanover County Commissioners for a short-term loan. Both agreed, but the county’s reaction was a bit more hesitant. Here’s Commissioner Thomas Wolfe responding to the request:

Thomas Wolfe: It looks simple. You get additional funding or cut out unproductive routes. If you don’t have the money you’ve got to cut your expenses.

Commissioner Wolfe has a point. Maybe it’s that simple. But this year the county’s likely to cut funding to Wave by half. If this happens, Wave will have to slice at least two routes, making service much less appealing for choice riders, creating bigger roadblocks to a thriving public transit system. And for the transit dependent, who rely on the bus to get to work, to go shopping, to get to medical appointments, it’s hard to say what will happen to them.