Long, winding road: Quest continues for cheaper school bus parking site
Updated 5:49 pm, Thursday, March 28, 2013
Board of Education members are considering two Post Road East properties as new school-bus parking options as they search for a less costly site than the school district's current Post Road depot.
Under consideration are a site on the town-owned Baron's South property and a state Department of Transportation maintenance facility bordered by the Sherwood Island Connector.
"If we can find a more economical way to do this, it's worth pursuing," said board member Mark Mathias. "It's not an easy thing to do, and it's not easy to solve, but we're continually looking for ways to save the taxpayers money."
The district's transportation provider, Dattco, pays about $250,000 in rent each year to park most of the district's 57-bus fleet at a Post Road East property adjacent to Baron's South and a Mobil service station. It then passes that cost on to the school district. In addition, 10 to 12 buses are parked during the day at an Imperial Avenue parking lot near the Westport Public Library and at night at a Dattco yard in Bridgeport.
Addressing bus-parking expenditures is a longstanding school board priority, and a number of potential parking venues have been considered in recent years. The board last year formed the Bus Parking Subcommittee, which now includes Mathias and his board colleague Jennifer Tooker.
Costs for bus parking are less than 1 percent of the school district's current $4 million transportation budget. But school board members and other town officials argue that finding a less-expensive site could produce substantial long-term savings and ease pressure on taxpayers, as the district grapples with large and rising fixed costs such as salaries and benefits.
In recent months, the DOT maintenance facility has attracted increasing interest from town officials. Many of them cite its proximity to a number of schools and surmise that access and traffic issues could be adequately managed there.
"We're completely focused on the DOT site," Tooker said. "But there are a lot of discussions in front of us. And it has to make financial sense. That is the ultimate goal."
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff has also expressed his support for the DOT site, although he says he has tempered expectations.
"It would be nice if the state were to allow us to park the buses on some of its property, but I am not holding my breath," he said. "We'll continue to go after state permission and maybe one day we'll be pleasantly surprised."
The DOT site already bustles with many operations. Between 30 to 40 DOT employees work daily at the complex, and department personnel are deployed there 24/7 after major storms.
Snow plows, maintenance trucks and equipment, mowing machinery and fueling apparatus are kept on the DOP property. The site also includes administrative offices, a large salt shed and a "debris-management" facility, the latter of which is used to store debris such as asphalt, gravel, concrete, dirt and tree detritus regularly collected by DOT workers from state roadways and surrounding state-owned right-of-ways.
Bordered by the Sherwood Island Connector to its west, the approximately 90,000-square-foot debris-management facility comprises the property's sole section that could be used for bus parking, said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. But he also noted its high usage.
"This is an active facility with an active debris-management facility, which is integral to the DOT's day-to-day maintenance operations," he said.
Talks between Westport elected officials and DOT officials are in an early stage. They have not yet addressed details such as how the state would grant a plot of the site for bus parking -- possibly through a lease or sale -- and what capital improvements would be needed to accommodate buses there.
DOT officials have not yet "weighed in" on bus parking at the site, Nursick added.
If the buses cannot be parked at the DOT site, Baron's South appears to be the most likely alternative. To accommodate parking for the entire fleet, fueling and light-maintenance infrastructure and a shelter for bus drivers there would require about 2.5 acres, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business Nancy Harris. A tract adjacent to Post Road East that would arc around a Sunoco gas station could be a suitable part of the property, Mathias said.
He also noted the "attractiveness" of the town's ownership of the property, but added that he does not have a preference between Baron's South and the DOT property.
Board of Finance member Michael Rea is one of the most vocal proponents of bus parking at Baron's South, arguing that the site could generate sizable long-term savings for the district.
"If you took $250,000 and compound those savings over 10 years, that $2.5 million," he added. "That's real money."
"I prefer the DOT site for geography, and I prefer it not to be at Baron's South because I prefer it to be kept for things that produce income or build community," he said. "But I still think it's viable."
"I don't think a concerted push has been made to get the state to sell us a piece of what is otherwise a dump," he said of the DOT site. "By doing this, we can take the section of the Baron's property along the Post Road off the table and keep it or sell it to find that return so many have been seeking."
Town officials, meanwhile, are reviewing developers' proposals to build a senior residential complex at Baron's South. That campus, however, would likely not be built on the portion of the property outlined for bus parking.
Regardless of the site, relocation of the district's parking depot would not happen until the 2014-15 school year at the earliest. Depending on the location, moving to a new venue may also require approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission and other boards and agencies.
Despite the protracted timeline and complex challenges of their initiative, school board members maintain they are committed to finding a new, more economical venue for the district's fleet.
"We're very serious about pursuing it, but this is not easy," Tooker added. "This has been researched for a number of years. It absolutely is an important piece of our operational costs, and we are very committed to finding a solution."
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