Editorial: Salisbury considering following in Wilson’s footsteps again

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Salisbury City Council’s discussion Friday about switching to a ride-hailing model for public transit is an idea worth trying.

During its retreat, members heard about Wilson’s RIDE program, an on-demand, ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft. Users can schedule trips through an app or online and be met later by a city transit vehicle.

Instead of big city buses, the vehicles are minivans.That means fewer passengers can ride in one vehicle, but it may also be a good fit for Salisbury’s current passenger load.

There don’t appear to be many daily instances where the city’s vehicles are full enough to justify a bus over a smaller option.

A presentation about Wilson’s service said it’s seen an increase in riders and that the cost to the city is about $11 per ride. The cost to riders is a typical bus fare $1.50. It’s $1 for additional riders, and there’s no additional fees for distance. Though, rides to cities such as Raleigh are probably not possible. Children under 8 ride for free.

Salisbury plans to start small, with a trial on the least-traveled bus route. If the success Wilson has seen can be replicated in Salisbury, the entire fleet of buses may become minivans in a year or two.

Salisbury’s current model of public transit requires more riders than it can reliably count on — particularly in the age of COVID-19. That may produce more costs than are neccessary otherwise.

Besides the local benefits cited by Rodger Lentz of the city of Wilson — increased access for riders, convenience, flexibility and reduced wait times — the program was cited just a few months after launch by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials as being innovative. It received an award for “best use of innovation and technology” — more than a typical commendation.

It’s unlikely a ride-hailing model for public transit will completely replace Uber or Lyft because of local government boundaries. But there’s certainly a scenario where transit ridership siphons away a large segment of people.

If Wilson sounds familiar to Salisbury, it’s because the City Council followed in the eastern North Carolina city’s footsteps in creating Fibrant — a city-owned and operated fiber-optic network until being leased to Hotwire. The success of Fibrant is judged differently depending on who’s asked. It’s been a burden on city finances, but Fibrant has been a net positive for the public — providing more affordable and higher quality internet than Salisbury saw before its creation. That’s ultimately what a public utility is supposed to do.

Speaking to the Post in 2017, Wilson City Manager Grant Goings said profits were never among motives for building his city’s network. Private providers had zero interest in building such a system.

A similar story is true in Salisbury, where it’s easy to forget how frustrating things were pre-Fibrant. City officials were taking calls at City Hall about problems with the monopoly Time Warner Cable held. There were public hearings for Time Warner Cable’s price increases. Salisbury city officials also talked extensively about economic development benefits.

Copying Wilson again in the public transit space seems unlikely to result in the same kind of political hot potato discussions as Fibrant. It seems more likely to produce lower costs to city government and more convenience.