The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners appears ready to strike a deal to save two local bus routes -- or at least ready to make a trade.
The commissioners met with the Wave Transit authority board and the Wilmington City Council in a special called meeting Thursday to discuss the future of Wave's bus routes to northern New Hanover County and Pleasure Island, and the county's role in funding the organization as a whole.
Tension had been building between the three entities regarding funding since June, when the commissioners cut their contribution to Wave to $140,000 in the 2013-14 county budget, down from $250,000 the previous year.
In response, Wave announced plans to eliminate two bus routes, stating that it couldn't afford to cover the costs without the county's help.
The northern route takes riders to stops such as Cape Fear Community College's North Campus, the new Veterans Affairs clinic at the airport, and the county jail. Dropping the recently launched bus to Pleasure Island, which only began in February, also would reduce Wave's countywide presence.
But Wave officials have asked for the commissioners to forgive a $133,000 loan given to the transit agency earlier this year, promising that the routes would be saved in return.
"The picture that's been painted is that it's the county's fault that Wave's routes are being cut," Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said. "The county is not at fault.... You have to live within your means."
"You can't take away $100,000 and not expect to cut services," City Councilman Kevin O'Grady shot back.
Though the two sides couldn't come to a clear consensus, commissioners' Chairman Woody White proposed a trade.
White told the group that if the city and Wave would agree to have "substantive discussions" by next year to hammer out a revised inter-local agreement for Wave funding, he would vote to forgive the loan and save the routes.
Vice Chairman Beth Dawson, who has supported forgiving the loan since the idea was first proposed in June, reiterated her support and stood by White's trade. Commissioner Tom Wolfe has also expressed support for the deal, giving the board the three votes it needs to pass the agreement.
The board of commissioners is expected formally vote on this decision during its regularly scheduled meeting Monday.
A group of about 15 frequent bus riders attended the meeting Thursday to show their support for the bus routes on the chopping block.
Johnie Lewis Jr. said those two routes are his main source of transportation, taking him to classes at Cape Fear Community College, to work and to do most of his shopping.
"It would have had a great impact on my day, but I'm glad they were able to compromise, to talk it out," Lewis said. "...We (bus riders) were under a lot of pressure wondering how we could get to class, but I feel great now. I'm excited."
However, despite the short-term solution for the two routes, City Council member Laura Padgett warned that the work was far from over for the three entities.
"The process for funding has always been and is the problem," she said. She said she wanted to see the officials come up with an "out-of-the-box" solution.
The commissioners, city council members and Wave Transit authority board members agreed to meet again by Jan. 15.
Ashley Withers: 343-2223
On Twitter: @AshleyWithers
Copyright 2013 - Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.