Public bus services in Westport, the subject of debate over the last several years, will be the topic of an open house at Town Hall today (Wednesday, June 12) hosted by the South Western Regional Planning Agency in partnership with the Westport Transit District.

The open house will be an opportunity for SWRPA to discuss a $115,000 study that began in April and runs through the end of the year, analyzing ridership in Westport. Residents will have an opportunity to provide feedback on which parts of town might be lacking in bus service and to suggest possible stops and routes.

"We're going to be meeting with the public at large to get some input," said Craig Lader, senior transportation planner for SWRPA. "We're presenting the opportunity for dialogue, presenting the opportunity for community members to tell us what they'd like to see as the future of bus transport in Westport -- what routes they utilize, what routes and stops they'd like to see utilized if budgets were of no concern. But clearly since they are, what are their ideas for balanced subsidization."

The cost and viability of the local bus system have been criticized over the last several years, most notably by Board of Finance members during several recent budget-approval cycles.

The town's bus routes have experienced 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, although the agency hopes to boost annual ridership 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, and in the end, the money was restored.

This year, the finance panel trimmed $20,000 from the transit agency's requested $279,000 budget, which was planned for a new marketing initiative. That money, too, was restored by the RTM when it acted on the budget in May.

Bus service in Westport, which has been outsourced to the Norwalk Transit Authority since 1992, includes fixed route, service for the disabled, door-to-door service to the two Westport train stations, routes to off-site areas including office parks and after-school shuttles.

"This is a big deal for the town," said Jennifer Johnson, a director of the Westport Transit District. "It's a way for people to hear about the study, and for them to hear from the people."

SWRPA is hoping to present the findings of its study to the Representative Town Meeting in December. Lader said the agency plans to hold another meeting with the public in the fall.

Today's meeting will be held from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium, 110 Myrtle Ave.

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