Editorial / Simple solution to shuttle-subsidy clash
Published 4:34 pm, Thursday, April 26, 2012
The wreckage has been cleared to the side of the road after a head-on collision involving the Board of wFinance and commuters who use shuttle buses to get to the train station.
But the Representative Town meeting has been left to wrestle with the tricky transportation-funding issue that caused the crash.
The Finance Board restored some of the money it had cut from transit subsidies after being confronted by angry, foot-stomping shuttle riders who said the cuts threaten their rides. But with transit subsidies still reduced by a net $60,000, riders remain worried their only ride to and from the station is not secure.
When it takes final action on the town budget, the RTM could restore the $60,000 and allow shuttle riders to sleep easy for the next year. But should it?
Only 210 people use the shuttle network each year, not all of them daily passengers. If the $60,000 were restored, it would amount to more than $285 per rider, and that's a number some Finance Board members could not swallow.
Common sense, dollars and cents, and supply and demand all suggest ridership should be growing, although there is no clear evidence it is.
In just two years, the waiting list for rail parking spaces grew 35 percent longer, and the typical waiting time for a coveted sticker grew 25 percent -- from four years to five.
This year, annual fees to park at the Saugatuck or Greens Farms stations increased 45 percent, from $225 to $325.
Yet even with the fee hike, getting one of the town's 1,430 rail-parking permits is a steal.
The daily rail commuter who gets 10 holidays off each year and takes two weeks of vacation will park at the station 240 days a year. That averages out to a measly $1.35 a day. On the street, that wouldn't get you two hours at a parking meter.
Interestingly, that $1.35 a day to park is pretty close to what a two-way shuttle passenger pays in daily fares. With a UniTicket, the shuttle commuter pays about 60 cents a ride, or $1.20 a day.
Finance Board member John Pincavage has proposed raising parking fees again to subsidize the shuttles. A great idea, but why not boost fares for the people who ride the buses, too. Even modest increases in both would more than offset the $60,000 transit cut and give taxpayers a break.
Westport's $325 annual rail-parking fee is an even bigger bargain when you consider what commuters in neighboring towns pay. It is 40 percent lower than the $550 average among eight communities in the area.
Raising Westport's annual fee by another $100 would cost that typical commuter an extra 55 cents a day -- a still-dirt-cheap $1.75.
At the same time, it would generate an additional $143,000 that could be used to cut taxpayers' transit subsidies.
Raising parking fees to the regional average $550 would generate more than $320,000 in new revenue. And our average commuter would pay a still-very-reasonable $2.30 a day to park.
That $320,000 is about 30 percent more than the entire transit budget First Selectmen Gordon Joseloff asked for. And that's before tacking on a in fare hike for shuttle riders.
If commuters paid $1.75 a day to park at the station -- or even $2.30 -- a similar round-trip fare for shuttle riders would seem fair to us. It's a bargain compared to $15 cab rides.
Of the shuttles, Finance Board member Brian Stern said, "We need someone to do the math to get the right routes and the right equipment on those routes."
Indeed, someone needs to do the math -- not only on routes and bus size but on the entire fare-and-parking-fee structure.
Joseloff wants to name a citizens' committee to study the situation and make recommendations for the shuttle system. That's a fine idea, but the shuttle system and station-parking fees should be reviewed as a package.
Both have the same goal -- getting residents on the train -- and they are too interrelated to view separately.
The Finance Board is on the right track in pushing to reduce taxpayer subsidies. And that can be achieved with modest increases in amazingly cheap parking rates and bargain-basement bus fares.
The RTM has authority to restore the $60,000 net cut in transit spending and reassure people who depend on the shuttles to get to their jobs.
That's a stop-gap expense that would be justifiable if the cost structure were reformed soon after.