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POLL: Costly Westport Commuter Shuttle in Jeopardy as Ridership Diminishes

The Board of Finance voted March 28 to discontinue several Norwalk Transit District commuter shuttles in Westport, partly because of the high cost per rider.

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on April 5, 2012.]

Recently, the Board of Finance voted to consolidate the Westport Transit commuter lines into one line running from the Imperial parking lot, which will allow commuters to be able to park at the Imperial parking lot for free and take a short shuttle to the train.

“The cost to maintain the existing shuttle network was exorbitant given the low ridership. The current routes benefit a small number of commuters living directly on those lines,” said Board of Finance Chair Avi Kaner.

It costs an average of $4,527 ($924 Westport subsidy) to transport each commuter to the Saugatuck station on an annual basis, and the shuttle has about 68 riders a day. It costs an average of $6,240 ($1,484 Westport subsidy) to transport each commuter to the Greens Farms station, but the shuttle accommodates only about 21 riders per day, according to statistical analysis provided by Kaner.

Board of Finance Vice Chair Helen Garten said the analysis on the shuttle system indicates that the cost per ride is extremely high.

“When I look at the transit district budget, I want to be sure that the service is cost effective, convenient and available to all Westporters who wish to use it,” Garten said.

Steven McClenning, a Westport resident who has depended on the S3 line for five years, believes the shuttle provides an efficient, convenient and reliable means of transportation to and from the train station.

“There is a six-year waiting list for a parking permit,” McClenning said. “Daily parking spots are limited and the cost of daily parking is four times greater than those who have a parking permit.”

Westport resident Melissa Mirabile raised the problem of the several year waiting list for parking spots at the train station, and believes the shuttle service provides a reliable door-to-door alternative for town residents. 

Garten, on the other hand, feels commuter buses don't run frequently enough or late enough in the evening for many commuters to take advantage of the system and that ‘given the current cost structure, enhancing service would be prohibitively expensive.’

 “I do understand that public transportation cannot survive without subsidy, but I am concerned that, despite town and state subsidization, the commuter service is not as convenient or readily available as it should be.”

Kaner said the ultimate goal is to solve the parking problem at the train station.

“If we succeed, our property values will further improve as buyers choose Westport over other similar towns in Fairfield County,” he said, adding he has indicated his support to First Selectman Gordon Joseloff to expand parking at the station, and strive to eliminate the waiting list for Westport residents.

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The board did vote to retain the door-to-door network providing rides to the elderly and disabled, regardless of the high cost, according to Kaner. It costs an average of $18,112 ($6,484 Westport subsidy) to transport each door-to-door user. The Board of Finance government efficiency committee will explore alternatives.

McClenning believes cutting the commuter shuttles goes beyond finances, though.

“Everyone who drives near the train station will be hurt by increased traffic and congestion,” he said, noting there are usually more than a dozen people on his 6:57 a.m. S1 commuter shuttle. “This will make everyone's commute longer.”

McClenning said the shuttle is also a strong selling point for the town, especially for couples moving out of New York. He cited the availability of reliable mass transit as a reason for increasing property values and for people to move to Westport. 

“Those that rely on the shuttle will see longer commutes, and a severe cost increase to their commute,” McClenning said. “The town should be doing more to increase ridership and encourage people to use the shuttle, not eliminate it.”

The Board of Finance is looking for creative solutions, though, according to Garten.

“Last year, we encouraged the Transit District to reexamine their route and pricing structure, which they did, but cost and convenience concerns remain,” Garten said. “This year, the Board voted unanimously to retain the commuter shuttle between the Imperial lot and the train station and eliminate other commuter routes.”

Garten understands that a decade ago forty or fifty commuters a day used the Imperial lot shuttle.

“If resources could be reallocated to increase the frequency of buses on this route, perhaps commuters might be encouraged to use the Imperial lot again,” she said.

Garten said she expected to hear from many commuters about this idea, and she did.

“What they have said has given me a lot of food for thought.  I look forward to hearing more from the public next Wednesday, before I make a final decision,” Garten added.

carolanne curry April 05, 2012 at 01:03 PM
This is really short-sighted. To remove public transportation, to counter the Master plan, to take the position that public services should be profittable services, and to lessen the quality of life so deliberately is NOT a Westport focused act by the Finance Board.
Steven McClenning April 05, 2012 at 01:25 PM
Agreed! Westport should be encouraging more people to use the shuttle and increasing service. This will benefit all of us by alleviating traffic during rush hour. And it is good for the environment.
Eric Agovino April 05, 2012 at 02:20 PM
I strongly disagree with the decision to eliminate shuttle service. It is a huge step backwards.
Dick Lowenstein April 05, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Commenting in this blog won't help. If you want the cuts restored, contact the two Transit District directors: James Hood and Bud Titsworth. You find them listed alphabetically at: http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=478 Also, you mustcome to the Board of Finance meeting on April 11 in the Town Hall auditorium. It starts at 8PM and the budget restoration is item 10 on the agenda (http://westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=26&recordid=2215&returnURL=%2findex.aspx%3fpage%3d147)
Steven McClenning April 05, 2012 at 03:15 PM
Thank you Mr. Lowenstein, I will be there on April 11. For anyone who is interested, I have started an email list to organize information regarding the restoration of the shuttle service. Please Join. http://bit.ly/HrkbKM
Fairfield Resident April 05, 2012 at 05:19 PM
BRING BACK THE "MINNY BUS"!!!! http://06880danwoog.com/2012/03/17/last-stop-minnybus/
Cliff Weng April 05, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Hi Steve we are that "couples moving out of New York"! We did so 4 years ago! We initially were bothered by the fact that Westport's RR station is not in "downtown" (unlike New Canaan, Darien & Greenwich) and Westport's lack of housing stock near the train station. At that time, "walk to RR" was on our top priority when buying a house, school was second, and public golf course (which cost tax payers many many times more than "commuter" shuttle) was nice but much further down our list. Didn't all these only "benefit a small number of " people? if that could be a reason to take out a service? Almost for this reason we were more interested in New Canaan/Old Greenwich/Riverside/Darren and placed few bids in those towns. They all have many in-town houses within .5 mile to RR. Luckily (or maybe unluckily giving the short-sighted decision that we are facing now) my broker sent us the information about the shuttle route and schedule. And that changed our decision, as we realized we can pick a house on a bus route (and we did) to (almost) satisfy our requirement number 1 "walk to RR". Now I feel silly! One more point, this (lack of public transportation) will certainly reduce the property value of Westport (more so than the other towns I listed above, for above reason) and in the end we might save some money but easily lose more in tax revenue in the long run. Yes I will be there on the 11th!
Andy Kaplan April 06, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Now is the time to encourage more folks to use mass transit, not to eliminate it.
A Bunger April 06, 2012 at 02:12 AM
The town should auction off the parking spaces at the train station and use the additional revenue to either subsidize the shuttle buses or, better still, build a parking garage at the station which will generate more revenue in future auctions. This will eliminate the waiting list and reduce or eliminate the need for taxpayer subsidies for commuters.
jjhm April 06, 2012 at 02:52 PM
The town should also recognize the reverse commuters who bring business to restuarants and stores while we work in Westport. Reverse commuters will now need to drive to work each day and THAT will increase the traffic in Westport not to mention the parking issue. The State has just spent lots of money to update our trains to get more drivers off the roads and onto mass transit. Why wouldn't Westport want to be part of the solution instead of contributing to the problem of congestion on the roads not to mention the pollution from car fumes?
Dick Lowenstein April 06, 2012 at 05:58 PM
BREAKING NEWS: If you can't be at the Board of Finance meeting on April 11, come to the RTM Transit Committee meeting, Monday, April 9 at 7:30 PM in Room 309, Westport Town Hall. The agenda is the transit budget (http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=27&recordid=3199) Dick Lowenstein RTM District 5
Judy Starr April 06, 2012 at 08:47 PM
If we want to go the garage route, one thing we may want to look at is how we'd get funding. If we got state funding, would we be able to set priority for Westport commuters as we do now? We should find out. If not, we would have a bigger facility, but more people who'd be cruising for that parking space. Plus, there would be more competition for seats when the train stops at the station.
jjhm April 06, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Dick, I will mention this to the reverse commuters who use the S1 route. They also need to be part of this argument for restoration of funds.
Mindy Goff April 07, 2012 at 04:22 PM
I've been I Westport resident for 10 years and have always used the shuttle - both the S3 and Imperial - and I have never bothered to get "on the list" for a parking space. It would definitely be short sighted to eliminate this benefit. I think we should focus on ways to make public transport a more attractive alternative rather than eliminate it. I can't make the 11th but I will definitely attend on the 9th. Thanks
David Greenapple April 08, 2012 at 02:20 PM
It's very interesting that the Board makes its case by saying that the bus costs over $4,500 per rider. The Board neglects to note the the bus costs Westport households (9,586 of them) only $11.66 per household per year. At the same time, those riders who use the bus pay an extra $480 per year to use it. Interesting that Westport, where the median income is over $147,000 per year, is fighting over each household saving $12 per year and is willing to close down a public transportation feature that reduces car travel and makes commuting to NYC more viable.
RMB April 09, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Another way to look at the issue is promoting the service so that more residents take advantage of it and thus lower the cost per rider. After moving to Westport about 2 years ago, I have not seen any promotions or marketing efforts to drive awareness.
jjhm April 09, 2012 at 04:40 PM
Good points RMB especially now that gas is on the rise again and what a great time to bring that awareness to the Westport Community.
RMB April 09, 2012 at 05:45 PM
I'd venture to guess that most people who decided not to own a second car and use the shuttle instead will not buy a second car and have one of the spouses drive the other one to and from the train station. This will result in 4 times a car driving to or from the train station (a return trip in the morning and another at night), resulting in more traffic congestion and nuisance for everybody, increased pollution, and possibly more road repairs. In fact, speaking of the additional traffic, I wonder how the bridge will handle the additional traffic and the possible delays impacting everyone. The town should be aiming at reducing the number of cars on the streets rather than the opposite.

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