Merging the financially-troubled Wilkes Transportation Authority with another public transit would reduce costs and facilitate an expansion of services in Wilkes County, stated a consultant.

This was among findings of Robert Brink Jr., a public transportation professional hired to evaluate WTA. N.C. Division of Public Transportation Director Debbie Collins recommended Brink and also recommended consideration of making WTA part of a regional public transit.

Brink reviewed WTA policies, staffing, routes and finances and sent a written evaluation to Gary Page, acting WTA director, Tuesday morning. Page shared this with the Wilkes County commissioners when they met as the WTA board later Tuesday. They named him acting director in mid-November.

Brink was director of the four-county Kerr Area Transportation Authority in north-central North Carolina for over 20 years and president of the N.C. Public Transportation Association. He received the Governor’s Award for Public Transportation in 2006.

Case for merging WTA

Brink’s primary recommendation was merging WTA with another transit system. He said the Boone-based AppalCart and the Conover-based Western Piedmont Regional Transit Authority (Greenway Public Transportation) were “logical fits.”

AppalCart provides free fixed route transportation in Boone and low-fare service to other towns in Watauga County.

Greenway provides fixed route transportation in Conover, Hickory and Newton; “flex” (varied) route service in Taylorsville and in Burke County; and “demand response service” (trips based on passenger requests) in Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, and Catawba.

Brink said that as part of a regional transit, WTA would be more sustainable and have more resources to increase transit in Wilkes. He said WTA now isn’t in a position to expand services and should reduce them if it remains a standalone.

Page said becoming part of a regional transit would theoretically mean keeping a scheduler and drivers in Wilkes and no administrative staff, except possibly a safety officer. He said this would have to be negotiated in a merger deal, which would be up for approval by the commissioners.

Brink said WTA’s current eight administrative positions are double what an organization its size should have, so many current WTA roles could be combined into one or divided among staff. Administrative staff costs are reimbursed by the state.

“Particularly, the director would have very little day to day responsibility under the current structure,” said Brink, adding that safety officer and operations roles should be merged with the director’s position.

“Without immediate change, cash reserves will struggle and the system will continue to have ongoing concerns about meeting payroll.”

County Commissioner Keith Elmore said he wasn’t sure if merging WTA with another public transit would be advantageous or improve service.

Elmore said he sees vans and buses of other public transits with few or no passengers. “I’m not so sure that they’re doing any better a job.” He referenced AppalCart, Ashe County Public Transportation Authority and Yadkin Valley Economic Development District Inc. (YVEDDI) public transportation, operating in Surry, Yadkin, Davie and Stokes counties.

WTA Finance Director Angie Gentry said she didn’t know if YVEDDI and Ashe Public Transportation are in any better financial shape than WTA.

WTA rates

Page said balance is needed between increasing rates enough to better cover costs and deterring ridership by charging too much. He said another consideration is county government subsidizing WTA to keep rates down.

Brink wrote that WTA isn’t properly calculating the full cost of trips and seems to be losing about 50 cents per service mile. He suggested providing only critical transportation until the true cost of each mile and appropriate charges so WTA could properly negotiate transportation contracts.

Page said WTA only charges riders for mileage while they’re transported and not while en route to pick up riders or return to the WTA office after dropping them off. Page said this meant WTA wasn’t compensated for nearly 250,000 of its 714,661 service miles in fiscal 2017-18.

Brink also recommended seeking annual county government funding to help keep rider fees down.

Page said that even before he saw Brink’s recommendations, he identified reducing administrative staff, increasing rates and seeking annual county government appropriations as suggestions. He said he would have more specific suggestions at the Dec. 18 WTA board meeting.

With 70-80 percent of WTA’s trips within the Wilkesboros, said Page, WTA perhaps should seek funding from the two towns. He was then told by others at the meeting that North Wilkesboro appropriated $5,000 to WTA this year, but Wilkesboro gave nothing. Money was sought from both.

Page noted that a May 2017 report on WTA from a Florida-based consulting firm, released by Collins, essentially concurred with his and Brink’s recommendations.

WTA’s revenue in fiscal 2017-18 included $1.04 million for trips for clients of human service agencies, $36,000 for “demand response” trips and $5,000 for weekend shuttle trips.

The $1.04 million included about $890,000 from the Wilkes Department of Social Services, based on $2.83 per mile and 314,776 miles. Page said this rate adequately funds transportation for DSS clients but WTA isn’t charging enough for other services so it overall is losing money.

He shared information showing WTA’s rates per mile and costs per mile to various destinations in fiscal 2017-18. WTA’s rates for demand response trips within 11 zones in the Wilkesboros ranged from 53 cents to 89 cents per mile, but actual costs were 1.89 cents per mile. The differences between rates and costs per mile were even greater to out of county destinations.

Elmore recommended dropping zone rates and charging based on actual mileage for demand response trips. He suggested stationing a WTA van in eastern Wilkes to transport residents of that area to Elkin for medical and other trips.

Other matters

There was brief discussion about efforts to hire a new WTA director. The position currently isn’t advertised, but Page said he is talking to a potential candidate.

He said a representative of Lexington-based Rives & Associates stated that in May he sent a letter to confirm that Rives would do the annual WTA audit and got no response.

Page said the N.C. Local Government Commission likes to see audit reports by Nov. 1 and already called about WTA’s audit, so he asked the Rives representative if his firm could do the audit despite the short notice.

Page said he received a letter from Rives Tuesday morning proposing a $12,000 fee for the audit, which he said seemed high. Gentry said Rives charged $4,000 for the audit last year.

County Manager John Yates suggested contacting Thompson, Price, Scott, Adams & Co. in Whiteville, which recently reviewed and reported on WTA finances. Page said he would contact the Whiteville firm.

According to a financial report given at the meeting, WTA is in the black and has enough funds for its payroll. WTA still owes county government $30,975, which includes funds being paid back as state grant funds arrive.

The WTA board discussed but made no decision on renewing or paying off a bank loan, down to $7,382 from $65,000 borrowed in 2008.

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