The board voted unanimously to give Westport’s Transit District some breathing space during a meeting at Wednesday night; however, if the full cuts were to occur it would signal the , according to Bud Titsworth, co-director of Westport’s Transit District.
Titsworth said the transit district is in complete agreement with the finance board’s desire to minimize the town’s portion of the transit subsidy while maintaining adequate transportation services. Though railroad parking is not part of the Transit District, Titsworth believes low ridership on the shuttle is directly linked to the low annual railroad parking pass fee.
Board of Finance Member John Pincavage made the motion to restore all but $60,000 of the $113,753 budget in order to buy time to strengthen the transportation system and increase ridership
“We are interested in reducing the subsidy paid by Westport taxpayers for the service, which is currently $2.33 per ride for the commuter segment,” Pincavage stated, adding that if no changes are made and no new revenue is found the commuter service will end in January of 2013.
“It will not pull the rope from our current commuters, but it will give them time to explore alternatives in the event that the commuter services may end,” he said.
Board member Janis Collins suggested that the shuttle have additional routes and a different fare structure in addition to recommending that an advisory committee be set up to make sure ideas and solutions get implemented in a way that suites Westport.
“There are solutions out there that would make subsidizing more attractive,” she said. “Right now we are subsidizing this about 85 percent, which is very high compared to some alternatives.”
Board member Brian Stern said the price of railroad parking needs to be looked at, noting it costs $325 for an annual railroad-parking pass, which comes out to $1.30 if you factor in 240 working days per year.
“That is pretty low,” Stern said, a comment that was followed by a loud applause by the audience. “We need to look at that to make sure people aren’t just hanging on to these permits because it is so inexpensive.”
Board of Finance Vice Chair Helen Garten acknowledged the ‘overwhelming outpour of sentiment’ regarding the potential cuts.
“What struck me was how concerned people were that their lives were going to be turned upside down in another three months if this was sustained. My inclination would be to restore the whole thing,” Garten said, a comment that was followed by an even louder applause.
Garten eventually made a motion to restore the full $113,573, but the board voted against it 5-2.
Board of Finance Chair Avi Kaner said and believes the lack of railroad parking is the root cause of the problem.
“It appears that this board is about to give you a lifeline,” Kaner said to the shuttle riders in attendance. “There are no other towns that do this. This is just not a common thing for a community to have.”
Westport resident David Sampson, who is a public transportation consultant by trade, believes additional parking, which costs about $8,000 per surface space and about $20,000 per structure space, is not the solution.
“We don’t need more parking,” Sampson stated. “We need more ways to get down to the (train) station. We don’t need more cars on Imperial (Avenue).”
Westport must look at the cross subsidies of the railroad parking price and the bus fare, according to Sampson.
“This is much too complex; there is no way on earth in the next six months that you are going to see a turnaround unless you solve some of these policies,” he said.
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Representative Town Meeting (RTM) District 1 member Matthew Mandell brought attention to Kaner’s lifeline comment.
“The only problem is the lifeline you are sending out is only half as long as it needs to be,” Mandell said, adding Garten’s idea of full restoration was the correct decision. “You’ve already put the gun to the head of the transit system. I think they’ve got the message, you don’t have to pull the trigger.”
Mandell told the board to ‘save some face’ and restore the full budget. He indicated that when this gets to the RTM, many folks will push against the cuts.
Westport resident Livio Sanchez moved to the east coast from Los Angeles, California in 2010 and one of the reasons he chose Westport was because of the public transportation –- so he wouldn’t have to get in a car to get to work.
Sanchez told a ‘cautionary tale’ from his prior home where voters chose to expand freeways instead of providing more public transportation.
“It’s miserable,” Sanchez said. “Look around at other states and other towns before you make the decision to kill public transportation.”
Jim Ross, a Westport resident who works in Stamford and rides the S4 shuttle, lost his vision to macular degeneration five years ago and is now legally blind.
“What is the cost for this kind of service for disabled people to be able to get out and get to their job?" Ross questioned the board. “I challenge you when you need something. This gets right to the heart of our lives and it is as personal as can be when talking about our livelihood.”