In budget deliberations, the Mobile City Council recently voted to cut more than 10 percent from an annual transfer to the Wave Transit System, in order to boost tourism and performance contract spending in fiscal year 2016. The cuts have Wave advocates fearing an impact on service, but it’s still unclear how the cuts will affect Mobile’s transportation system.
The Council took more than $700,000 from the $6.2 million General Fund transfer dedicated to Wave and used the money to bolster the budget of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau and a number of nonprofits.
Wave General Manager Tyrone Parker declined to speculate about any specific impact the cut in funding may have on service, but he did say it was unexpected.
“Wave Transit management and staff were obviously surprised after receiving the news of the City Council adopting the budget with amendments that directly impact transfers to the Wave Transit System,” he wrote in an email. “Management looks forward to meeting and working with the city administration in addressing the FY16 budget, as it relates to [Wave’s] overall operation.”
Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch also did not speculate on possible changes at this time.
“We will be reviewing Wave funding over the next few weeks and will inform you when decisions have been made,” Wesch wrote in an email. “There will, of course, be some changes, but it’s too early to tell what areas will be addressed.”
Ellen Carter, a Wave advocate and member of an independent citizens advisory group, said she fears the cut in funding could impact the system’s hours of operation or number of drivers.
“Buses will be more inconsistent,” she said.
She said the system needs new buses, but at about $440,000 each, the funding cut could impact that as well. Carter said some of the buses have been in service for 12 years.
“We need new buses,” she said. “This would be a wonderful investment and we just lost them.”
Although the system does receive about $3.4 million in grants from the Federal Transit Administration, which require a 20 percent contribution in local money, several sources said the grants would remain intact.
“The budget action taken by the Mobile City Council affects the city’s general operating account,” FTA spokeswoman Valerie Berton wrote in an email. “Reductions to the city’s general operating account do not affect FTA’s local match or capital fund, which are tied to the transit agency or designated recipient.”
The Council put more than half the money cut from Wave, or about $367,000, toward the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Council also put more than $100,000 toward performance contracts, as well as about $130,000 on Council discretionary and operating budgets.
Councilman Levon Manzie defended the cuts, saying the Wave transfer was the only place in the budget where the Council has “leverage.”
“I believe the Wave is an area that needs much study,” he said.
It’s time, Manzie said, for the transportation system to consider routes. For instance, he said, there is a route that includes a public housing development where no one lives. Manzie added Wave ridership was a big part of the decision.
“Public transportation doesn’t work unless someone uses it,” he said.
Last year, Wave ridership was reported at about an average of 1 million per year. Based on that number, there are about 1,750 unique riders per day. Even at 2,000 daily riders, less than 1 percent of the 223,000 people in the Wave’s service area are taking the bus.
Councilman Joel Daves, the chairman of the finance committee, said the driving force behind the cuts was how to divide up limited resources.
“The Mayor and Council have really taken a hard look at the General Fund,” he said. “We’ve reduced expenses and we’ve reduced funding to performance contracts.”
Daves said Wave funding “sticks out like a big, sore thumb” when compared to the public transportation systems in other similarly sized cities.
Even with the cut that drops Wave’s local funding to about $5.5 million, Mobile still spends more on public transportation than Huntsville or Montgomery. According to information provided by the FTA, Montgomery spends about $3 million in local funds for its public transportation system. Huntsville contributes about $1.7 million, according to Transportation Director John Brown. Huntsville also receives about $2 million from an FTA grant, he said. Mobile receives more because the funding is based on gas tax receipts and other factors. Huntsville also gets $15,000 in county funds.
Daves said it was important to increase the convention budget with a new cruise ship coming in November 2016 and GulfQuest now open.
“It’s time to sell Mobile,” he said. “I thought it was appropriate to fund it.”
Another problem for Wave funding is the lack of support, in local money, the transit system receives outside of the city limits. The system has routes in Prichard, Chickasaw and into Mobile County, but none of those entities provide money for the service. Carter sees this as a big problem.
“Mobile shouldn’t contribute more,” she said. “The county, Prichard and Chickasaw should contribute.”
Carter said these cuts will mostly hurt those in the community who use the system to get to work, or go to doctors’ appointments or to shop at the malls.
“This is insane,” Carter said. “It burns me up that people keep talking about more roadwork and parking. Riding the bus means less work on roads and less need for parking.”