[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.