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Buses vs. Budgets: Westport transit system at crossroads

Published 6:39 am, Monday, April 23, 2012

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  • Jim Ross boards the Norwalk Transit District S4 commuter shuttle to the Saugatuck Metro-North train station at approximately 7:35 a.m. each day at the corner of Hillspoint Road and Hillandale Road. Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Jim Ross boards the Norwalk Transit District S4 commuter shuttle to the Saugatuck Metro-North train station at approximately 7:35 a.m. each day at the corner of Hillspoint Road and Hillandale Road. Photo: Paul Schott

 

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When the kitchen clock hits 7:20 a.m. each morning, a 10-minute countdown begins at Jim Ross' Hillandale Road home. By the time the minute hand strikes six, he must make sure that his 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, has finished her breakfast, brushed her teeth, gathered her book bag and boarded a school bus waiting outside to take her to Green's Farms Elementary School.

Ross, too, has a bus to catch. Within the next five minutes, he must walk about 500 yards down Hillandale to that street's intersection with Hillspoint Road to get on the Norwalk Transit District-operated S4 commuter shuttle, which takes him to the Saugatuck Metro-North train station. From there, he takes a train to Stamford, and then walks a few blocks to his office, where he works as the chief operating officer at the AX Trading Network Group, which runs an electronic trading exchange.

But the first leg of his journey is not that straightforward. Ross is legally blind, the result of macular degeneration that began several years ago. He still has peripheral vision, but relies primarily on sound to find the bus.

"I try to use my senses the best that I can. I listen for the growl of the diesel engine," he said. "If I hear the growl of a diesel engine, I know I've got to book it."

Ross, 49, has perfected his routine after about two years of riding the S4. Each day, he reaches the bus stop on the other side of Hillspoint, the S4 arrives and the doors of a white Ford E-450 bus fling open. Ross hops aboard, smiling warmly at the driver, Richard Jalbert, and his fellow passengers.

"Good morning, Richard. Morning, Colleen. Hi Jeff. Jennifer, Melissa, how are you?"

The congeniality of Ross and fellow riders on the S4 belies the increasingly acrimonious public debate that has unfolded in recent weeks, as the town's public transit system potentially faces deep service cuts.

On one side of the debate is a faction of Board of Finance members who assert that the Norwalk Transit District receives too much public money for a commuter shuttle system that is inefficient and under-used. On the other side stands a sizable contingent of commuters and Representative Town Meeting members who counter that slashing public subsidies for the bus system would cripple commuter shuttle service in Westport and leave many riders with no viable commuting alternatives.

A CONTROVERSIAL CUT

Commuter unrest surfaced late last month when the Board of Finance approved a $73.5 million municipal budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year after cutting approximately $114,000 from the town's $248,000 allocation to the transit district proposed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. That reduction would have eliminated the S4 and all other commuter shuttle lines operated in Westport by the Norwalk Transit District, except for the route between the Imperial Avenue parking lot and the Saugatuck station.

Commuters quickly mobilized, as scores of them packed the Town Hall auditorium on April 11 to register their dissatisfaction with the prospective funding reduction. Amid the din of supportive clapping and cheering, a series of commuters pilloried the finance board for cutting transit funding during one of the most emotionally charged public meetings in Westport in recent years.

During that hearing, Norwalk Transit District officials called for the finance board to reverse its original vote and approve Joseloff's proposed transit allocation. In response, the finance board voted at the end of the April 11 meeting on a compromise measure that shrank the transit district's budget reduction to $60,000.

The RTM's Finance and Transit committees voted unanimously Wednesday night to recommend restoring $60,000 to the 2012-13 transit budget, which would rise to the full amount proposed by Joseloff. Enactment of that measure would require the approval of at least 70 percent of the full RTM when it votes on the budget next month.

If the RTM does not restore the $60,000 reduction, the transit district should be able to maintain current service levels through April 2013, said Bud Titsworth, the district co-director. The $60,000 reduction could be restored by the Board of Finance later this year if the transit district drafts a new plan of action and implements changes such as a fare hike that would satisfy members of the finance panel.

Along with commuters, a number of town officials are still unhappy about the finance board's push to cut public subsidies for the local shuttle network.

"I think the current service level has to be maintained to remove the uncertainty that the service might end in six months," Joseloff said. "The Board of Finance has put everyone on notice, but it's not an immediately solvable problem. To have a six-month deadline is not the way to go."

REDUCE THE SUBSIDY?

Several finance board members contend that Westport's public transit system receives excessive taxpayer subsidization. In addition to Westport's public funding, they question the shuttle network's allocation from the state Department of Transportation, which would total around $710,000 next year, if the RTM were to restore the $60,000 cut. Adding in riders' fares, Westport bus routes would command total funding of approximately $1.1 million next year if the RTM were to approve Joseloff's proposed $248,000 allocation.

"I'd like to see a transit system that is more efficient and less costly to the taxpayers," said Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner. "The way to reduce the subsidy is to encourage the transit authority to eliminate the UniTicket and increase the fare to the same level as daily parking at the train station."

The UniTicket is a combined monthly rail and commuter bus pass available to Metro-North commuters. It charges Westport riders $28 for shuttle service, which would equate to about 60 cents per ride, if a commuter took a shuttle five days a week to and from one of the town's two Metro-North train stations. In comparison, a single-ride commuter bus ticket costs $1.50, while a daily railroad parking spot costs $5.

Several finance board members have also expressed dissatisfaction with the transit district's modest ridership volume in Westport and have floated the possibility of restructuring parts of the shuttle network.

"We may need smaller buses that run more frequently or we may need larger buses, but we need someone to do the math to get the right routes and the right equipment on those routes," said Brian Stern. "We must have a transit system. But it must be more efficient and more cost-effective than it is right now and better designed."

A total of about 210 town residents and inbound commuters to Westport use the commuter shuttle network each year, according to Norwalk Transit District data. About 100 Westport residents commute annually by bus to the Saugatuck station, while around 40 take a shuttle to the Green's Farms station. Each shuttle rider to the Saugatuck station costs the town about $600 a year, according to transit district statistics. Commuters to the Green's Farms station and inbound commuters who use the shuttle system both require an approximately $800 outlay each year from the town.

`NO OTHER CHOICE'

Set against the relatively low ridership of the transit district in Westport stands a core of users, like Ross, who depend heavily on the commuter shuttle network.

"Give me my sight back; I'd love to drive. But I can't," Ross said. "When you really need something, it's there, and that's what public transportation is. There's no other choice when you're trying to do something other than drive to the station and drop your car off."

Other S4 riders also emphasize their reliance on commuter shuttle service to the Saugatuck station.

"If not for the bus, I don't how we would survive and function on a day-to-day basis," said Matt Weilgus. "My wife's day starts earlier than mine, so I have to wait for the nanny to arrive, and then I grab the bus."

Jennifer Morgan-Campbell is the nanny for Weilgus' infant son. Like many other Westport shuttle riders, she said she would be willing to pay a higher fare, provided that current service levels are maintained.

She commutes from Bronx, N.Y., to the Westport station and then rides the first half of the same looped S4 route that Weilgus then takes the rest of the way to the station. When she gets off the bus, Weilgus stands at the end of his driveway with his son tucked in a stroller bassinet, which he hands off to Morgan-Campbell, before jumping on the S4.

"If I didn't have this, I'd have to take a taxi, which costs about $14," Morgan-Campbell said. "If this bus doesn't run, I'd have a problem. I really depend on these buses."

PARKING PRESSURE

Many Westport riders' need for the commuter shuttle network correlates to a chronic lack of parking at the town's two train stations. Between 2008 and 2010, the total number of applicants on the waiting list for parking permits grew 35 percent from 1,850 to 2,500, according to data from the South Western Regional Planning Agency. During that period, the estimated time spent by applicants on the waiting list increased from four years to five years.

Several town officials have expressed support for increasing parking permit prices to spur more turnover of reserved spaces in Westport's commuter lots. Increasing parking permit fees could also help to fund the transit district, said finance board member John Pincavage.

"If mass transit isn't a good use of parking funds, I don't know what is," he said. "It's all related."

The Board of Selectmen last year raised the annual parking permit fee at Westport's two Metro-North stations from $225 to $325. Annual railroad parking permit fees in SWRPA's eight municipalities average a total of about $550.

REVVING UP NEW PLANS

Despite the contentious debate over the future of Westport's bus system, several town officials and commuters point to a promising new trend: the emergence of new ideas to expand the transit district's user base and to improve its cost-effectiveness and quality of service.

Among a wide range of proposals, riders and town officials have suggested that the transit district add new routes; extend shuttle operating hours; launch new marketing campaigns, and offer new desktop computer programs and tablet apps to facilitate easier commuter onnections between Metro-North trains and its buses.

Joseloff, meanwhile, has announced that he plans to form a new citizen committee -- which will not include current elected officials -- to study the transit district and make recommendations on prospective improvements to the shuttle system.

The new panel aligns with a call by state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, for a renewed focus and commitment to public transit in Westport by both elected officials and private citizens.

"This is something that makes Westport special," he said. "Unless we are serious about that, there's almost no point in arguing about subsidies or efficiency. It's whether we want to have a transit system in the town of Westport, which is a public transit system that serves those who are not as fortunate as many in Westport."

The recent Town Hall sparring over the transit district budget has also arguably strengthened many riders' commitment to the commuter shuttle network. At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, exactly 11 hours after he embarked on his morning walk down Hillandale Road to his bus stop, Ross sat in his kitchen with his 6-year-old son, Emmett. As they looked out toward the street, Ross spoke about his desire to keep using the S4.

"Riding the bus -- those are my neighbors, and they're also my friends now," he added. "In five years, I'd like to see a more intelligent and expanded use of the system. It can be a tie that binds. Public transit ties the community together."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott