Transit officials hear frustrations over abrupt cancellation of after-school buses

Nancy Carroll, Norwalk Transit District's chief operating officer, speaks during a public hearing at the transit district headquarters in Norwalk Tuesdy on Westport's after school bus problem.
Nancy Carroll, Norwalk Transit District's chief operating officer, speaks during a public hearing at the transit district headquarters in Norwalk Tuesdy on Westport's after school bus problem.Anne M. Amato

Dan Sholler said it was stressful enough getting his two children ready for the start of the new school year this week. Then, he found out that the bus service he and his wife depended on for the past six years to take his children to Temple Israel after regular classes had been cancelled.

"We were shopping at Staples and then found out this," he told the parents and town officials attending a public hearing on the recent cancellation of the after-school bus service held Tuesday afternoon at the Norwalk Transit District headquarters. The NTD manages the Westport bus system.

The Federal Transit Administration last month ruled the after-school service, provided for the town by the transit agency for 30 years, was an illegal use of federal commuter money and had to stop. About 160 students and their parents are affected by that decision.

"What now?" asked Sholler, who said both he and his wife work and can't readily drive his children to the synagogue after their classes end. "I guess we have to call around and organize a car pool."

"The elimination of the bus service on such short notice will cause great disruption to families," said Karin Beitel, director of education for Temple Israel. She said 195 students are enrolled in its after-school program and "the majority of them use the service every week."

She said halting the service on such short notice "has left our families scrambling."

"This came to us as a shock and surprise after using the NTD for over 30 years," said Dewey Loselle, the town's operations director. He said town officials had already asked for an extension to allow the service to operate at least until Jan. 1 and now they are following the formal process to seek an exemption.

"We didn't know we had a problem," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136. He said the Westport Transit District routinely passed federal audits.

"We got caught completely flat-footed on this," added Jennifer Johnson, a member of the town's Citizen Transit Committee. She said she was "deeply and personally saddened kids don't have a bus" to take them to their after-school programs with this "federally mandated shut down."

The service was halted, according to Nancy Carroll, chief operating officer for NTD, because the three routes used to bus the children were not compliant with federal regulations. That was discovered during a study conducted by the South Western Regional Planning Agency, which was commissioned by the town several years ago as a way to see if the NTD was delivering the best service possible for Westport, Carroll explained after the hearing. "It was to give an overall view," she added.

A consultant involved in that study "suggested the delivery of service provided for the after-school programs might be in conflict with federal regulations," she added.

The state Department of Transportation read a draft of that survey and, suspecting the service might be in conflict, referred the matter to the FTA, said Carroll.

Carroll said the NTD attempted to get an extension of the service and sought bids from private transportation providers, offering approximately $65,000 to provide the after-school service from about Sept. 2 to Dec. 31, but did not receive "any expression of interest."

Having been turned down for an extension, officials now are seeking an exemption "to give the town and NTD time to come up with a viable solution," she said.