A map of Connecticut transit districts shows the patchwork of transportation services offered around the state, most operated by regional systems. The Westport Transit District, which operates on a stand-alone basis, is the purple point on the map in the southwestern corner of the state.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — New state legislation penalizing towns that do not partner with other municipalities to provide regional transportation services may force the Westport Transit District to join with Norwalk or Bridgeport.

How to deal with the legislation was the topic of discussion Monday as the Representative Town Meeting’s Transit Committee met with local, regional and state officials.

Law requires critical mass for full funding

RTM Transit Committee Chairwoman Kristin Schneeman called a meeting Monday to discuss both new state legislation that encourages merger of transit districts to qualify for state aid, as well as future priorities for the Westport Transit District.

The legislation says that any municipality with a population of less than 100,000 will not have more than 40 percent of its transportation system’s operating expenses covered by the state. 

That means Norwalk, with a population of about 93,000, would need to merge its transit system with a neighboring community, such as Westport, to qualify for needed operational funds, Kimberlee Morton, executive director of the Norwalk Transit District told the RTM committee. 

It also means that Westport by itself could not expect to get much funding from the state for its local transit services. Currently, Westport administers transportation  programs within town by purchasing services from the Norwalk Transit District for buses and drivers. 

“If you have under 100,000 population in your [transit] district you will start losing money; with more than 100,000 you have the opportunity to get additional funding,” Lisa Rivers, transit manager for the state Department of Transportation explained at the virtual meeting.

Merging transit districts will streamline services a transit district can offer, such as buses, taxis, and individual ride services, Rivers said. The state DOT is developing a transit app for all transit districts in the state where riders could request rides and pay for them online anywhere in Connecticut.

Asked if Westport could partner with smaller neighboring towns instead of larger cities she said, “If you were working with towns like Weston and Redding — you would need a lot more towns of that size” to meet the population threshold of the transit legislation. Partnering with Bridgeport or Norwalk “would make more sense” for Westport, she said. 

What are Westport’s transportation needs?

The meeting was called by Transit Committee Chairwoman Kristin Schneeman, of District 9, to discuss the new legislation, as well as other funding opportunities for Westport transit services and the town’s future transportation priorities.

Schneeman asked the meeting participants what steps the town should take to deal with the change in funding requirements and to consider “what we need in Westport and what we need to achieve it.”

Local vs. regional

Calling the state’s new transit legislation flawed because of its funding restrictions, Doug Holcomb, executive director of the Greater Bridgeport Transit District, said that transportation services are best managed on a regional basis.

Some committee members said they want Westport to focus on the town alone, and forgo the state funding if necessary to avoid merging with a neighboring transit district. 

Providing quality transit services within Westport is more important than services connecting the town with other communities, said committee member Dick Lowenstein, District 5. 

“We have to be sure that the people of Westport get the services they need,” he said.

The new state legislation is flawed because of its funding limitations, according to Doug Holcomb, chief executive officer of the Greater Bridgeport Transit District. “The bill as it’s written is merging for merging’s sake — not in the best interest of the riders,” he said. 

However, Holcomb did agree that southern Fairfield County’s transportation systems should be managed on a more regional basis. “You might think that you want to focus on the people in the town, but you have employees coming in from Norwalk and Bridgeport … we need to understand who all the stakeholders are,” he said.

Broad-based transit survey recommended

Several committee members as well as the transit officials recommended that a study be conducted to determine what transportation services are not offered now or do not meet the needs of people who live, work or travel in Westport.

James Foster, interim chairman of the Board of Finance, agreed with others at the meeting that a study of Westport’s transit needs should be conducted.

Morton called for a “gap analysis” survey of what transit needs are not being met. The detailed study should involve broad community outreach, including the opinions of employers, commuters, senior citizens, residents with disabilities and others who live or work in Westport, she said.

The Norwalk Transit District has funding for a comprehensive operation analysis and Westport could be part of it, she added. The state DOT also could provide Westport with help for a transit study.

When it was suggested that the RTM committee ask the Board of Finance for funds to pay for a transit survey, some committee members noted there has been a long history of the finance board cutting funds for the transit district.

James Foster, interim chairman of the Board of Finance, agreed that a transit study should be conducted. He said a diverse group, including RTM and Board of Finance members, business owners and others, should be in the group completing the study.

“I can’t predict what the Board of Finance would say,” he said, regarding a request to fund a transit survey. But, he added, that a study is a positive idea.

“The core and the center of this is the customer, the consumer, the taxpayer,” Foster said. “We have to build something that gets used and is liked by the taxpayer.”State Rep. Johnathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a member of the state legislature’s Transportation Committee, said that Westport’s transit system as it currently operates may not be sustainable because of the Board of Finance’s unwillingness to fund it.

“Every community has to recognize its needs. But where we’re failing is that it also has to be part of an integrated regional structure,” he said. 

“We should be proactive and talk to these other communities … We’re on the brink of having a conversation that we’ve needed to have for years,” Steinberg added.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.