Board of Finance member Jim Foster presents the town-side budget for 2023-24 to the RTM. / Photo by Thane Grauel
Board of Finance member Jim Foster presents the town-side budget for 2023-24 to the RTM. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting on Monday night restored full funding to the Westport Transit District and passed the town-side spending plan for 2023-24.

The first selectwoman’s portion of the overall plan, $81.3 million, passed unanimously.

Another $6.7 million for other agencies and organizations — including the Transit District, which had $291,231 restored — passed 33-1.

The Railroad Parking Authority, Sewer Fund Budget and Wakeman Town Farm plans also passed with no votes against.

The overall spending plan stands at $233.2 million, about two-thirds of which is for the Board of Education. The schools’ budget will be discussed by the RTM at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Town Hall auditorium, and again Wednesday if necessary.

“The town is in great financial shape,” Board of Finance Vice Chairman Jim Foster told the crowd when presenting the spending plan for the next fiscal year.

“I just want people to know, and that’s a big headline, this town has been well-managed through the joint efforts of so many people,” he said. “We’re in really good shape as we move forward.”

The drama of the evening, predictable as it was, came by bus.

Funding for the town’s commuter shuttle service to and from the two train stations, had been trimmed once again by the finance board. Shuttle service for senior citizens and the disabled would not have been affected.

Several people spoke in favor of restoring the money, and about the importance of the service.

Priscilla Toumey, a local real estate broker, was among them.

She said people thinking of moving to Westport often hear that you can’t get a parking sticker for the train station for five years.

“But that’s kind of turned around,” she said.

“There are basically two groups of people moving in here,” she said. “People with elderly parents, who are now bringing their parents with them and looking for homes with accommodations for parents, and the fact that the elderly parents will be able to get around … that’s very important.”

“And the other group is people with young adults, who have moved back because they can’t afford to live anyplace else,” Toumey said. “There’s a big population of 20-somethings and even early 30-somethings who are moving back with their parents, and that group needs to be served.”

Dick Lowenstein, District 5, said he would not consider the finances of the operation.

“We provide public transportation for the public good,” he said. “Not everybody uses it, not everybody wants it, but it’s there for the public good, and that’s why we have it.”

“There is no public transportation system in the country that operates at a profit,” he said.

“If we are not for Westport, who will be? If we are only for Westport, what are we?” he said. “And if not now, when?”

“Now is the time to approve the restoration,” he concluded.

Louis Mall, District 2, said he voted against restoration last year because he didn’t think the RTM should be in the transit business. He still feels that way, and agrees the business model is broken.

“I agree, he said. “It’s not working. And a year ago, one of the things I suggested is why don’t we fold into either Norwalk or Bridgeport, but get us out of the transportation business.”

The funding was restored by a vote of 33-1, with Mall opposed and an abstention by Peter Gold, District 5 and the Transit District’s volunteer director.

Gold said in a statement after the meeting that he and his fellow RTM members received some 325 letters in support of restoring the funding.

“I want to extend my thanks to all those who wrote to the RTM in support of the restoration,” he wrote. “Their emails really made it clear just how much the Wheels2U service means to all segments of the Westport population and to those who commute to work in Westport.”

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.