Peter Gold, Representative Town Meeting member and reappointed Westport Transit District director, during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting of the RTM Transit Committee. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Transit Committee of the Representative Town Meeting met Tuesday to discuss the Westport Transit District’s budget for 2022-23, strategizing about predicted “potholes” in what sometimes has been a rocky road to approval.

This year, the district received $342,000 from the town. For fiscal ’23, it is seeking $343,200.

The state is expected to contribute $620,900 to the district’s overall financing, and collected fares are forecast to be $48,900.

Bus ridership takes a hit

Ridership on transit districts buses declined — dramatically, at some points — over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January 2021, for instance, the buses carried only 293 passengers for the month, according to the district’s data.

Ridership, however, since then steadily rose to about 1,300 and 1,500 rides toward the end of last year, before falling off again early this year because of the Omicron variant’s spread.

The 1,012 rides this January were short of the 1,900 rides targeted by transit officials, and last month’s 1,566 rides failed to meet the 2,000-ride target.

The transit district does not own its own equipment. Instead, the agency contracts with the Norwalk Transit District for services, including a door-to-door service, called Wheels2U. That program provides on-demand rides for commuters to the town’s railroad stations in the mornings and back from the depots in the evenings. The district also offers door-to-door rides for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Budget two-step: Finance vs. RTM

The annual transportation budget, in the past, has encountered resistance from the Board of Finance, which has imposed deep cuts only to have the money later restored by the full RTM.

“I suspect it’s going to be a Lucy and Charlie Brown thing again,” said RTM member Don O’Day, District 3, referring to the “Peanuts” character who holds a football to be kicked, but time and time again snatches it away at the last second.

“The Board of Finance is going to cut, because they can, and the RTM is going to restore, because we can and we will,” O’Day said.

No more Mercedes minibuses on fixed routes

One of the Westport Transit District’s “Wheels2U” shuttle buses.

Peter Gold, the transit district’s director, as well as a District 5 RTM member and Transit Committee member, gave new members a quick history lesson about public transportation in Westport.

In the 1970s, Gold noted, Westport rolled out a fleet of Mercedes minibuses, and attracted nationwide attention. 

The buses, with an orangish-red-and-white paint scheme and distinctive diesel clatter (something like a VW Beetle on steroids), are long gone. 

In intervening years, the transportation budget has been whittled away, and the needs of riders have changed as well. 

Fixed routes for local buses have been replaced with on-demand service, which can be arranged via a smartphone app.

“It’s more flexible,” Gold said. “We can scale the number of buses we use, up or down, to meet demand. The old fixed-route service we had to run the bus around a loop just to see if anyone was there. So the buses were constantly using gas, the drivers were constantly putting miles on the buses.”

“Under this system, the driver doesn’t go unless there’s a ride,” Gold said. “It’s much more efficient, we only go where the commuters need to go, lowers the miles traveled, it’s greener than the old system. It’s more flexible.”

Public transportation and diversity

“This is déjà vu all over again,” said Richard Lowenstein, District 5, referring to earlier years when the RTM has overridden the finance board on the transportation budget.

But this year, Lowenstein said, other factors are in play.

“The first one is diversity,” he said. “Diversity has become a keyword … it’s a buzzword.” 

His observation came a week after a Board of Education member accused the Board of Finance membership of not being diverse during a budget meeting where finance board members critically questioned school officials over the lack of progress in diversifying the teaching staff.

Lowenstein suggested getting TEAM Westport onboard, because, “good public transportation promotes diversity, in some small fashion.” TEAM is a committee that advocates for multicultural issues in town.

He also said transporting people by bus to local beaches, Compo and Sherwood Island, would be beneficial.

Dollars alone can’t measure transit value

Lowenstein likened the importance of public transportation to that of libraries. “I believe it has a value you can’t put a number on … It’s very important.”

Committee member Rachel Cohn, District 8, also saw value beyond the dollars spent on public transportation, and wondered what other entities might find common cause.

“What kind of a town do we want to be?” she asked. “Do we want to be a town that supports these green options … do we want to be a town that supports its elderly, do we want to be a town that offers options for people who are not hedge fund millionaires, who don’t want to buy another car?”

WTD director’s reappointment recommended

Also at the meeting, the committee recommended that Gold — despite his willingness to be relieved — be reappointed by the full RTM as the director of the Westport Transit District. 

The vote was 6-0, with Gold recusing himself.