Beyond the budget: Transit panel explores route to a broader agenda
Updated 7:20 am, Friday, November 27, 2015
The Citizens Transit Committee, aiming to broaden its drive in support of local public transit issues, plans to survey the public to determine local priorities in relation to transportation in all its forms.
Prompted in part by concerns over several recent pedestrian injuries, and fueled by support from First Selectman Jim Marpe to reconsider its mission, the committee wants to avoid focusing solely on the transit budget.
“I think we should give up on that,” member Carl Lindahl said at the panel’s meeting last week. “I don’t think we should be in a position to have to defend it.”
The budget for the Westport Transit District — $310,359 this fiscal year — has been a target of scrutiny, and some criticism, over the last several years, particularly as some Board of Finance members questioned its cost efficiency.
“I think to expand into other transportation issues is the way to go,” Lindhal said, suggesting the survey. “What I’d like to know is, what are those other issues?”
The committee intends to look at a range of issues, including pedestrians, sidewalks, bicycles, traffic, road condition and more.
“This is not a toothless committee. We want to make sure that our voice is meaningful,” said Chairman Jim Ross, noting Marpe’s request for more help.
“What he’s saying is, ‘Hey guys, let’s evolve,’” Ross said. “It’s progressive. I give him credit for that.”
“I think we want to respect his interest and support for us and I think we need to come up with something,” he said.
“We need to talk to more people,” Lindahl said. “We’re supposed to be telling him what the citizens are thinking … get a real consensus of what people are feeling and report that to Jim Marpe.”
“Which is why that survey would be so helpful … There are so many different components of this community that all need their voices heard,” said member Carolin Sigal.
One such segment are residents along Bridge Street, east of the Saugatuck River bridge, where a teen runner was recently hit by a car trying to cross the street.
“It was her fault, they said, because there was no crosswalk,” member Sal Liccione explained. But, he added, the state Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the town, had recently removed the crosswalk markings at the senior housing complex at the site of the former Saugatuck Elementary School.
“They scratched it out, the DOT,” he said of the crosswalk markings, noting it had been there many years. “Everybody crossed there.”
“The neighbors want the crosswalk there,” he said. “The town doesn’t, but the neighbors do.”
Sigal said it was probably an effort to keep traffic moving faster along Bridge Street. “I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s probably what the logic is,” she said.
Local bus shuttle service to the railroad station was recently expanded to meet evening trains, but committee members said they no longer want to be in a position of having to defend costs in relation to ridership numbers.
“We need to stop arguing about ridership,” Ross said. “The budget is about the budget and it’s not about if there are enough riders on there or not. The RTM is the one that should decide if this (transit) district should exist.”
Meanwhile, at least one member reported that traffic, particularly on Imperial Avenue and Greens Farms Road, has been so slow during morning commuting time that shuttle buses have missed the trains they were scheduled to meet. Committee members speculated this was due in part to more school bus service in the early morning because of changes in the elementary schedule, and hope to meet with school officials to discuss the matter.
“The town needs to have a strategy here,” Ross said, “to have some sort of plan, and I think we can at least help voice a need for that and better coordination.”
Questions were also raised regarding the widening the historic Saugatuck swing bridge so that traffic wouldn’t be dramatically slowed by larger vehicles. The future of the span is currently being studied by the DOT, which has prompted concern among some preservationists who do not want the 131-year-old span replaced.
“That bridge is ridiculously narrow,” Lindahl said. “It is so narrow that even when I drive one of our cars … I’m concerned when a bus is coming the other way that our mirrors might break.
“If someone’s going to rebuild or refortify that bridge,” he said, it would be a “big mistake” not to widen it to some extent.
“We love our little antique bridge,” Sigal concurred, “like you said, but when that bridge was built cars were not this big.”