Expanding commuter hours or creating a daytime Saugatuck-downtown bus loop are two of the suggestions on the table for expanding Westport's bus service.
Details of the Westport Bus Operations and Needs Study were presented Wednesday night by the South Western Regional Planning Agency and consultants. Around 30 people -- mostly town officials -- heard the planners outline several options that could help increase ridership on Westport Transit District buses.
"We're looking for you to help us prioritize," said Christopher Henry, senior transit planner with the AECOM consultants.
Three suggested improvements would cost an estimated $165,000 each, based on a cost of each additional hour of bus service at about $23,000 annually. Expanding all seven commuter routes by one hour each is one option, creating a new loop to run between Saugatuck and downtown via Imperial and Riverside avenues is a second, while creating an all-day general run throughout the town, including Staples High School, downtown and perhaps the new Mahackeno Y is a third option.
The study also suggests possible expansion of the Imperial Avenue parking lot shuttle to the Saugatuck train station at an additional hour each day for a $23,500 annual cost. It was also suggested, at no additional cost, slightly altering the two Greens Farms commuter routes to pass along a portion of the Post Road
Henry said it was important, however, not to move too quickly, and instead adopt changes gradually and build on them.
"That's sort of a theme for the implementation plan," he said. "You don't do it all at once."
According to a memorandum from SWRPA, bus ridership in Westport has been declining year after year -- approximately 40 percent over the past five years. In fiscal 2013, Westport buses had a total ridership of 59,553, down from 99,537 in fiscal year 2008. Part of the decline was attributed to service cuts and adjustments and economic trends.
"The growth is going to be modest," Henry said of potential changes. "We're not going to overstate what the growth is going to be."
Henry said the commuter-hour services have long represented the backbone of the local transit system, which is managed by contract by the Norwalk Transit District.
"For the most part the commuter hours are pretty well covered right now," he said, but some have suggested that more hours could attract more riders.
"The more flexibility that you have in your schedule, the more likely you are to embrace the service and use it," he said.
At this time, for example, anyone leaving New York after 6:30 p.m. would not be met by a bus at either Saugatuck or Greens Farms stations.
"Public involvement has really been a critical component of this throughout the course of this study," said Craig Lader, senior transportation planner with SWRPA. The study began last year and, he said, is expected to culminate with presentations to the Board of Finance and, possibly the Representative Town Meeting, in coming months.
He commended the work of the Study Advisory Committee. "They've been very helpful in guiding us along," he said. "This committee has met three times and they've been at the forefront of being the eyes and ears of the community."
"We're going to be holding future events as well," he added, to gather Westporters' reaction to the suggestions.
"I think we've really done a pretty good job of reaching a cross-section of the community and hopefully that will be reflected in our work" he said.
While opinions among those in the audience differed on the best way to expand service -- as well as how to promote those changes once they have been implemented -- there was agreement that service improvements should be a priority for the town.
"I'm thrilled that the study is progressing," said Jennifer Johnson, co-director of the Westport Transit District. "I think there are some good things that the town can do now that will come out of the recommendation, (but) we need the town to be engaged in this."
"I think this is something that's so very important," said First Selectman Jim Marpe. "The goal here is to help us set priorities."