Board of Finance members made a circumspect assessment Wednesday of the Westport Transit District's proposed budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, expressing concerns again about some of the major challenges facing the transit network.
The town's two transit directors, Jennifer Johnson and Gene Cederbaum, have requested about $279,000 for the next fiscal year, which would raise spending by about 13 percent over this year's $248,000 budget. The proposed budget would designate $23,000 for marketing to increase public awareness of the town's bus services.
"I honestly believe that we have worked over this last year to bring a new, positive take on Westport transit," Cederbaum said.
The proposed transit budget almost equals the $280,000 allocation that the transit district received from the town during the 2010-11 fiscal year. It would keep spending essentially flat for both fixed routes and door-to-door service, and maintain all of the routes and services now provided by the town's public bus network. It would not add any new routes next year.
The proposed budget is the first spending plan drafted by Johnson and Cederbaum, who were both voted in to their transit posts in August 2012 by the Representative Town Meeting. As transit directors, Johnson and Cederbaum act as the main policymakers for the town's public transit system.
Cederbaum and Johnson argued Wednesday that the proposed $23,000 marketing appropriation would principally aim to boost ridership on the town's commuter bus routes.
"What we need to do is let people know what this system is and how to ride it," Johnson said. "We don't have any marketing; there's nothing out there that really tells anybody any information."
The South Western Regional Planning Agency, meanwhile, is planning a new study of Westport's transit system. The recommendations delivered by that survey will help to improve the effectiveness and expand the user base of the transit network, Cederbaum and Johnson told the finance board.
Westport's transit network includes several commuter shuttle routes running to and from the town's two Metro-North train stations, after-school buses and door-to-door buses for senior citizens and disabled passengers. The Norwalk Transit District has managed Westport's public transportation system since 1992.
Most of the transit district's funding comes from the state Department of Transportation, with the DOT allocating about $750,000 to the transit district for the current fiscal year.
The town's commuter lines have struggled with 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. Johnson and Cederbaum hope to raise the annual ride total 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.
The Board of Finance instead decided to restore about $54,000 to the transit budget. In May 2012, the RTM approved full restoration of the transit district's proposed $248,000 allocation.
Finance board members reiterated Wednesday many of the worries they voiced last year about the transit district's future.
"I think we all agree that public transportation is a good thing and that we should try to keep it going, if possible," said Avi Kaner, the finance board's chairman. "But we've got to increase ridership."
Board of Finance members appeared ambivalent about supporting funds for a transit marketing effort.
"We're in the same place this year as we were last year, except we have two new transit directors," said Janis Collins. "I'm inclined to say we should give them some marketing money, because the one thing we've really never done is market this service."
Helen Garten, the finance board's vice chairwoman, took a more skeptical view of the prospective marketing spending.
"Why do we think marketing is going to increase ridership when honestly we don't know?" she said. "What essentially is the universe of new riders who could take the bus?"
The finance board did not take any budget votes Wednesday. It will on the transit network's funding, along with rest of the town budget, during budget hearings in late March.
"You're in the bus business now, Gene," said finance board member Michael Rea. "You don't have a long route. We need a short route. We need for you to implement. I'm anxious to support you, but as far as this system being viable, you've got a dead end if you don't do something quick."
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