Wheels of change: Service cuts loom for Westport bus routes
Updated 11:57 am, Thursday, May 26, 2011
Smarting from a recent $40,000 budget cut approved by the Westport Representative Town Meeting, Norwalk Transit District officials proposed Wednesday night to make up for the funding hit with a series of cuts to bus routes that it services in town.
Among the most major changes, several routes would be eliminated and the last evening trips on commuter shuttles from the Saugatuck Metro-North Railroad Station would be eliminated. Transit district officials are also proposing to increase base fares from $1.25 to $1.50 and to raise fares from 60 cents to 75 cents for riders with disabilities or 65 years old or over, and for people with Medicare cards.
"Philosophically, we didn't want to have to make any cuts," said Bud Titsworth, co-director of the Westport Transit District, which is part of the Norwalk Transit District. "We recommended strongly that they approve the budget that we submitted, but they didn't, so we had to cut $40,000."
The RTM approved the $40,000 cut to Westport's annual contribution to the Norwalk Transit District during its hearings to review and approve the town's 2011-12 budget earlier this month. In the new fiscal year starting July 1, the town will accordingly allocate $240,000 to the Transit District, compared to $280,000 for the current year. With the state Department of Transportation contributing $3 for every dollar that Westport allocates, the $40,000 cut equates to a total funding loss of $160,000, according to Norwalk Transit District Deputy Administrator Nancy Carroll.
In a related transit issue, the South Western Regional Planning Agency is set to launch a new study of parking facilities and traffic flow around the Saugatuck station. The study, partially funded by the town, may recommend a new parking structure near the station, which First Selectman Gordon Joseloff has identified as a viable project.
But other town officials' support for funding public transit services appears more tenuous. Prior to the RTM's vote, the Board of Finance in March had approved a $100,000 cut to Westport's 2011-12 allocation to the Transit District. The board subsequently approved a $60,000 restoration to the town's contribution, but several members nonetheless indicated dissatisfaction with transit district management of the town's bus routes.
Only a handful of commuters attended the Wednesday night public hearing held by the district at Town Hall to discuss the proposed cuts.
Ariel Zhang and Fany De La Cruz, who work for Terex Corp., a manufacturer of heavy equipment, at the Nyala Farms office complex, said their commutes from Manhattan would be lengthened by the proposed elimination of shuttle service from the Saugatuck station to their office. In place of that route, transit district officials propose to run one shuttle from the Green's Farms Metro-North station to Nyala Farms at 7:45 a.m. and another in the opposite direction at 5:45 p.m.
"We'd have the 5:45 shuttle to Green's Farms, but the train from there wouldn't leave until 6:30," Zhang said. "We'd have to wait 45 minutes, and there's no waiting room. On a day like today, it would be OK, but in the winter or rain, it would be really hard for us."
Instead, Zhang and De La Cruz suggested that the transit district retain its current 8:15 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. shuttles between the Saugatuck station and Nyala Farms.
Andy Kaplan, who rides the commuter shuttle between the Imperial Avenue parking lot and the Saugatuck station and commutes to Manhattan, said funding is not the only factor that will determine the future viability of the bus routes.
"The only prayer we have of continuing the shuttles in the medium- and long-term is to increase ridership," he said.
The Westport Transit District provides a total of about 90,000 individual rides each year, equivalent to 300 to 400 regular riders, according to Carroll. In comparison, Norwalk Transit District-operated bus routes have an annual total of approximately 2 million rides.
During their March public hearing for the transit district's 2011-12 budget, several Board of Finance members cited low ridership as justification for cutting the district's funding.
"The service in Westport is very limited," Carroll said Wednesday. "When you do that, you're going to have low ridership. You're not going to have high usage like you have in urban areas like Norwalk, where there's a lot more service."
The transit district will accept public comments on the proposed service cuts until June 22. Titsworth and Westport Transit District Co-Director Jim Hood will review those responses before approving service cuts. Those changes are scheduled to go into effect on July 18, but Carroll said that the implementation date may change.
Riders' comments on the proposed service cuts can be emailed to Norwalk Transit District Administrator Louis Schulman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Riders can also call the Norwalk Transit District at 203-852-0000.