Jim Ross didn't realize how important bus service was in Westport until he lost his eyesight. Now Ross uses the town's door-to-door shuttle service to take him from his home to the train station so he can commute to work.
"I think sometimes we don't realize the buses are there when you need it. You might not need it today or tomorrow. But you may lose your job or your car at some point," Ross said during Wednesday's Town Hall public meeting hosted by the South Western Regional Planning Agency, which is studying ways to improve bus service in Westport and asked the public for feedback.
More than 50 people attended the two-hour session, which was an opportunity for SWRPA and its contractors to discuss a $115,000 study that began in April and runs through the end of the year, analyzing ridership in Westport. Residents like Ross had an opportunity to provide feedback on which parts of town might be lacking in bus service and to suggest possible stops and routes.
"There are two main things to keep in mind as we go through this," said Chris Henry, project manager for Southport-based AECOM, the consulting firm conducting the study. "How well do Westport bus services meet the needs of the community right now? And how should the transit resources be prioritized so we can our maximize and get the best bang for your buck?"
The cost and viability of the local bus system have been criticized over the last several years, most notably by Board of Finance members during several recent budget-approval cycles.
The town's bus routes have had declining ridership in recent years. During the 2008 fiscal year, the town's commuter buses provided about 107,000 rides. Approximately 63,500 rides are projected to be taken on the commuter routes this year, according to ridership statistics provided by the Westport Transit District, although the agency hopes to boost annual ridership to about 71,000 during the next fiscal year.
Transit officials and finance board members have frequently clashed over town funding for the bus system. In March 2012, the Board of Finance cut $114,000 from the transit district's proposed $248,000 budget, as several of its members criticized the transit network's management and ridership levels. Scores of commuters turned out at a finance board meeting a few weeks later to call for the overturn of the $114,000 reduction, and in the end, the money was restored.
This year, the finance panel trimmed $20,000 from the transit agency's requested $279,000 budget, which was planned for a new marketing initiative. That money, too, was restored by the RTM when it acted on the budget in May.
"The trouble is too many people on the Board of Finance think public transportation is a money-making operation," Richard Lowenstein, a member of the RTM Transit Committee, said before Wednesday's meeting. "It isn't. It never is anywhere in the country. It has to be subsidized. And as soon as they accept that, we'll be OK."
Bus service in Westport, which has been outsourced to the Norwalk Transit Authority since 1992, includes fixed route, service for the disabled, door-to-door service to the two Westport train stations, routes to off-site areas including office parks, and after-school shuttles.
Many riders of these transit services were in attendance at Wednesday's meeting.
Colleen Williams lives off Roseville Road and takes the S-4 commuter bus from her home to the Saugatuck train station. She's been taking the shuttle for three years and has been on the waiting list for a train station parking permit for five years.
"There was a point in time where there was a threat that the shuttle might be cancelled, so I was attending all the meetings. I depend on that shuttle bus to get back and forth to the train station," Williams said. "My name is on the (parking permit) list, but even if it does come up I think I'd still take the shuttle because in the bad weather I'd rather not drive."
Jennifer Johnson, a director of the Westport Transit District, said she was pleased by the turnout at the meeting.
"Transportation is complicated and everyone has their own transportation needs," Johnson said. "The needs of a disabled person or a senior citizen is completely different than a commuter who needs the bus to run a little later (in the evening) or a parent who can't get the kid to an afterschool activity."
"I would love to see broader service down the Post Road if at all possible. But even if not, I'd like to see at least the same level of service continue. The people I talk to on the shuttle are very anxious, very concerned every time the subject of the shuttle comes up. Everybody talks about what they're going to do if they shut down the shuttle service," Burgan said.
She told Westport News that bus service is underutilized for a reason.
"I think one of the issues that didn't really come up is that bus service is really not cool. Having to take the bus symbolizes, `Oh, you can't afford a car,' or `Oh, you can't afford the parking downtown or at the train station.' It's really not cool to be seen on the bus, and that's a whole cultural thing in Connecticut, not just Westport.
"I lived in Chicago for five years and everybody took the bus everywhere. It was ridiculous to try to drive anywhere."
SWRPA officials hope to present the findings of its study to the RTM in December. The agency plans to hold two more meetings with the public before then.