Transit talk: Debating the public's support -- and need -- for Westport public transit

The guests of the latest episode of the Westport Roundtable podcast discuss the Westport Transit District. Clockwise, from bottom left, are: Jennifer Johnson, Westport Transit District co-director; Jim Ross, chairman of the Citizens Transit Committee; Cathy Talmadge, chairwoman of the Representative Town Meeting's Transit Committee; Gene Cederbaum, Westport Transit District co-director; and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.
The guests of the latest episode of the Westport Roundtable podcast discuss the Westport Transit District. Clockwise, from bottom left, are: Jennifer Johnson, Westport Transit District co-director; Jim Ross, chairman of the Citizens Transit Committee; Cathy Talmadge, chairwoman of the Representative Town Meeting's Transit Committee; Gene Cederbaum, Westport Transit District co-director; and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.Paul Schott

Editor's note: This is the latest article in a Westport News series, "Westport Roundtable," which features discussions by community leaders of important issues in town. This discussion, hosted by reporter Paul Schott, focuses on the local public-transit network, the Westport Transit District.

The Westport Transit District represents something of a paradox: a public-transit system that is vital to its users' daily routines, but peripheral or unknown to many other town residents.

Westport's transit network includes several commuter shuttle routes running to and from the town's two Metro-North Railroad stations, after-school buses and door-to-door buses for senior citizens and disabled passengers. It has provided about 70,000 rides during the last year, according to transit officials.

The district was organized under the state's Municipal Transit Act in 1974. The Norwalk Transit District has managed the system since 1992.

Most of the district's funding comes from the state Department of Transportation, with the DOT allocating this year about $750,000 to the district. Approximately $143,000 comes from passenger fares and other revenues, while the town has allocated about $248,000.

In recent years, transit spending has comprised less than 1 percent of the town budget. But those expenditures have attracted continued scrutiny by the Board of Finance. In March 2012, the board cut $114,000 from the transit district's proposed 2012-13 budget, as several of its members criticized the transit network's management and ridership levels. Scores of commuters turned out at a board meeting a few weeks later to ask for the overturn of the $114,000 reduction.

The board instead restored about $54,000 to the transit budget. In May, the RTM approved full restoration of the

district's proposed $248,000 allocation.

The district's two directors, Jennifer Johnson and Gene Cederbaum, requested about $279,000 for the 2013-14 fiscal year, including $20,000 for a marketing plan to increase public awareness of the town's bus services. Excluding the marketing-plan allotment, that proposed budget would raise spending by 3 percent compared to the current year.

The finance panel approved the district's proposed operations budget without changes, but cut the proposed $20,000 marketing appropriation. That funding request, however, may be restored next month by the Representative Town Meeting, which takes the final votes on the town's budget.

The 2013-14 transit budget is the first spending plan drafted by Johnson and Cederbaum, who were both appointed to their posts in August 2012 by the RTM. As directors, Johnson and Cederbaum act as the district's main policymakers.

The roundtable, held last week at Town Hall, focused on key Transit District issues such as scope of services, funding, ridership and fares. It included the following participants:

- Gene Cederbaum, co-director of the Westport Transit District.

- Jennifer Johnson, co-director of the Westport Transit District.

- Jim Ross, a daily user of the Transit District's services and chairman of the Citizens Transit Committee, which was formed in July 2012 to evaluate the town's bus services.

- State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136, is a member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.

- Cathy Talmadge, District 6, is the chairwoman of the RTM's Transit Committee.

Following is a condensed version of the discussion. To listen to the entire discussion, visit the Westport News online at

Q: During the last year, what have been some of the notable transit-related developments?

Ross: I think that a year ago a real groundswell of citizen reaction brought the momentum of putting this case before the RTM to review the budget and ultimately decide to reinstate the budget for transportation. I think what happened last year was really a galvanizing moment that really sparked a renewed interest in transit in Westport.

Johnson: Jim is the chairman of the Citizens Transit Committee, Cathy has taken on the leadership of the RTM Transit Committee and Gene and I have been appointed as the new transit directors -- so that's kind of started a new chapter for the Transit District and laid the groundwork for a new beginning.

Cederbaum: We have, in a very nascent state, begun a public relations campaign in town. Jenny and I believe that however well the district is serving Westport, a lot of people don't know of its existence and don't know of the services it provides and we feel very strongly that we need a public-relations/marketing campaign to make that presence understood and available to everyone.

I think we're in a different place. An although we didn't get the marketing budget we wanted this year, otherwise the existing budget with a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) increase was approved by the Board of Finance. We think that we need that marketing budget, but we don't think we can overlook the fact that an operating budget with a 3 percent increase was approved and that the marketing element was new.

Q: What is the extent of the Transit District's ridership, and how does it compare to past usage of the system?

Johnson: We have 70,000 rides that we have provided to this community this past year. And that is clearly an exciting number. Seventy thousand rides that have served across demographics. It services our seniors, it services our kids in the elementary schools, it services our middle-school kids, and it services young families and commuters and all kinds of different people. That's the number we're focused on and that's the number we're looking to increase.

The number of rides has actually been higher, but these were in times where there was actually a little more financial support, more routes and more awareness. So we do see the relationship between funding and rides. There is an effect, and I think there is a collective effort here to see how we can increase that ridership. It's 70,000, let's get it over 100,000.

Steinberg: Back in the '70s, we had what was really kind of an innovative program, which was federally subsidized, I guess as an experiment, but we had a lot of routes. We had frequency on those routes. Kids, particularly, took tremendous advantage of it. And I think what we have today is kind of the vestigial residue of that original plan.

With all the talk about running it more like a business, being more bottom-line-oriented, I don't think they were ever asked to look at how sensible the routes were in light of how things have changed over a couple of generations. I think the Transit District should be afforded the opportunity to rethink that which really hasn't been explored in a comprehensive fashion, probably for decades.

Q: What are some of the major initiatives that will shape the Transit District's development during the next few years?

Cederbaum: The South Western Regional Planning Agency is in the midst of preparing and contracting for a study, just of Westport transit. Also, a study simultaneously will be conducted of railroad parking by people who do this as a profession. We are very hopeful that before the end of the year, and during that time, we will begin to have data that will enable us to analyze fares, analyze routes and make sure we're not penny wise and pound foolish in increasing fares and decreasing ridership. That's a very exciting time.

Johnson: What makes it so exciting to be a part of this right now is we have two studies that are happening. In the railroad study, they're looking at revenue, they're looking at what are the rates being charged at the railroad. Why are the rates in Westport lower than all the surrounding towns?

A third thing that is happening, which I firmly believe will increase ridership, is the creation of this automated vehicle-locator system. This is going to be an app on your cell phone. It is being tested this year and what that is going to do is immediately tell people where that bus is. So it'll take away that uncertainty. You can look on your PDA when you're on the train and check again really quickly whether there's a bus there [at the station]. It can really make a difference.

Steinberg: I think data is great, but I think we should have realistic expectations about what we're going to get out of it. Context is so important when you think about these things. When you talk about things like price elasticity -- how much can you raise fares before you impact that -- I think that's a little bit cart before the horse when we really don't have a sense of both core ridership, but also potential ridership. All these factors are integrated. It makes it very difficult to come up with a credible plan with what we can expect going forward.

It's important to have the baseline that this data provides, but I don't think it's a substitute for thinking outside the box, looking at other communities. What is it that we can do to change behaviors, and what we're really talking about a lot here is getting people to recognize there are viable alternatives to driving their car everywhere or waiting five years for a parking pass at the train station.

Q: In recent years, a number of Board of Finance members have questioned the level of the town's fiscal commitment to the Transit District. Do you think the town has an obligation to contribute funding to the district?

Cederbaum: The demand for public transit exists today. We start off from a very good place. I think the demand will be greater with the senior center, the Saugatuck and the Y. There's real potential there; we have to realize that potential. That potential is going to take a lot of work, and it's going to take a commitment to public transit, which means in the form of funding.

The beginning of that was, in my opinion, a very modest $20,000 to see what we could develop with a marketing campaign. That was the beginning. But I think it's there. I don't think we're fishing in streams where there are no fish. But we do need some assistance in catching.

Talmadge: I think Gene and Jennifer have done an incredible job with just $3,000 of [marketing] spending in terms of what they've produced. And the Board of Finance basically said when they turned down the additional $20,000, "We'll work with you throughout the year; come back to us with your projects." That's not a real workable solution.

I believe that that they have demonstrated that they know what they are doing, that they are going to use the funds wisely. I think they need to have a budget to do this as needed, as opposed to having to go to the Board of Finance for a $3,000 appropriation, in which the whole process would take six to eight weeks or two months.

Steinberg: Mass transit of this sort is a public good, and, yes, these are tough post-recessionary times where we have to make hard choices. But Westport is not a community where we're supporting a huge, underprivileged class with a lot of wrap-around services and the like. This is something that Westport can make a statement, that we recognize that some things deserve to be subsidized because of these intangibles, because of the variety of other factors that you bring in here. Even though the perception is that everybody in Westport is a hedge fund manager, that's not the case. This is something that we do because we believe in it as a community. This is something that we value.

Obviously we should take into account bottom-line, dollars-and-cents considerations. It should be run well, there should be accountability and transparency. But this is not the same animal as running a business. Nor is it even the same animal as a town department or the library, things of that sort. This is intended to be a public good. Mass transit has long had that tradition. So we need to reacquaint not only those in government, but the people in general, that this is something worth supporting.

Q: Several finance board members have also recommended that the Transit District raise its fares. What is the likelihood of that happening in the near future?

Cederbaum: No public transit system of which I'm aware makes money. Because it's a public service and provides service to so many people, it's been recognized for longer than we've been around that it's necessary. And it's never been characterized as necessary only if it breaks even or does better. To ask a transit district to raise fares in a vacuum can be very, very counterproductive and unwise.

I think we need to know what the effects of increased fares are, I think we need to know more about demand, I think we need to know more about possible routes or improving routes.

We may find that we can increase ridership and therefore increase fares less. To raise fares in a vacuum is not responsible.

Johnson: We're not adverse to raising fares -- we may need to do that -- but we want to do it very carefully because it is always perceived when you raise fares that there can be an inverse relationship. You might drive more revenue by increasing your fare, but at the same time, you might drive down ridership and therefore end up decreasing your revenue.

The goal right now is to maximize the number we can possibly get in ridership, because the more people who ride it, the more fares that are going to be collected and the more that we'll be able to increase our revenue.

We're looking very carefully at getting that guidance from the SWRPA study to understand what will be the best formula for collecting more revenue without negatively impacting our ridership.

Ross: We raised rates last year to $1.50, which was actually greater than what the state charged, which was $1.25, so we were already ahead of what the state was charging for public transportation. We had already taken the great step of paying more.

I am not supportive of just raising rates arbitrarily, unless we really start to tackle the awareness, the quality-of-life issues and start to address that.

Steinberg: Typically, when you raise prices, you want to offer more than you do now. You don't want to have it just tied to inflation. If anything, we've been offering a diminished product over the past number of years. It would be great if we could tie any increase in price to the price-value proposition, which is in return for that increased price, we are delivering greater convenience, greater frequency, all sorts of benefits that would justify an increase.

Q: What are some possibilities for increasing the Transit District's scope of services and effectiveness?

Steinberg: We can look at this as problem solving. How many cars do we have on our roads that come zooming down Riverside [Avenue] that come from Weston or Wilton? And we have a Westport Weston Health District, and we have a Westport Weston Family Y. Why aren't we looking to amalgamate and take all those cars off the road and create routes where Weston is also subsidizing this and we're actually having a big impact on the number of cars that are going down to the train station.

Cederbaum: We need to make it appealing in those communities such as Westport, which are affluent or reasonably affluent, why should I do it. And there are many answers to that question. And one of the things that a marketing program will do is help educate citizens.

I believe there are real synergies between public transport and the Downtown Merchants Association, the library, other programs, the Y, the Levitt Pavilion. If we're servicing 70,000 rides, not only can we increase that number with the existing situation, but that number of people who need public transit and would be disposed to use it is going to increase by virtue of these developments.

Johnson: I like to use the phrase "Main to train" -- Main Street to the train station. How do we do that with a bus, how do we do that with a safe bike route? How do we make the town celebrate our river and celebrate what this town has to offer instead of feeling at risk when you're jogging down Imperial Avenue?

And there are kids who don't have parents who can come and take them to all their events after school. They are somewhat stranded if they're not the kind of kid doing a sports program or has somebody who can be their bus and shuttle, then they're somewhat stranded. The town services and creates this amazing youth program through Toquet Library, our amazing library and our amazing downtown. The idea of using the public transit to complement and expand it that for the benefit of our youth, I think, would be fantastic.

Talmadge: I have had a lot of mothers contact me about expanding that service. That would be very valuable to them and maybe we need to look at the economics of that.

Ross: I think we have to do a lot of different things. I think we also need to come to terms that we've got to better integrate Longshore [Club Park], Sherwood Island, the library, Compo Beach. It's not about public transit, it's about the amazing assets and facilities around our town that people want to get to.

I think we can think smartly not just about how we move people through the town, but about bringing people into the town as a destination. Maybe what we could do is expand the shuttle to actually create a more continuous kind of shuttle, not just for employees, but for people who want to jump on the bus and get to downtown, funded by the public and the state, but also by the downtown merchants that get the benefit as well. We can be very creative and adaptive in drawing from the funding resources that are out there and available to us.; 203-255-4561, ext. 118;