Peter Gold, RTM member and director of the Westport Transit District, answers questions during the Tuesday meeting at which he was reappointed to the volunteer post for the next four years. / Photo by John Schwing

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — The Westport Transit District director will keep the reins, while students at Staples High School will grab the ropes of a new “adventure learning” program.

Those two items on the Representative Town Meeting’s agenda Tuesday, although they cost little or no money, provoked the most questions and nearly all the discussion time while other multi-million-dollar projects breezed to unanimous approval.

Transit director reappointed; transportation issues roll on

Peter Gold, the current transit district director and Representative Town Meeting member from District 5, won reappointment to a new term at the helm of the transit agency from May 1 to April 30, 2026.

But his reappointment did not come without critical questions about the larger issues of how well the existing public transportation services in Westport meet the needs of riders, as well as their financial sustainability. 

Most RTM members who spoke praised Gold for accepting the volunteer director’s post and working to improve agency programs, particularly the Wheels2U shuttle service to the town’s train stations.

Nancy Kail, District 9, thanked him for taking a “tough, thankless job,” made even more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But many also indicated the time has come for a broader approach to local transportation issues. 

Several specifically called on the Tooker administration, as well as other community leaders, to join an initiative to address the annual budget tug-of-war between the Board of Finance and the RTM over transit programs’ low ridership vs. high costs per ride.

As in past years, the Board of Finance last week sharply cut the recommended 2022-23 budget for the Westport Transit District — cutting in half the $266,000 requested for the Wheels2U service — and the RTM is expected to restore that money when it takes final action on the budget later this spring.

The transit district was seeking a total of $343,200 from the town, with an additional state outlay expected to be about $620,000.

Jennifer Johnson, a former WTD director, speaking as a member of the public, said that although she thinks highly of Gold, the stand-alone Westport agency can no longer be sustained.

Westport, which now contracts with the Norwalk Transit District for vehicles and drivers, should formally merge with that agency, which would allow local transit services to be provided more efficiently, Johnson said.

Louis Mall, District 2, also was concerned about potential conflict-of-issues in the transit agency’s administration.

Although Gold recused himself from Tuesday’s discussion and vote, Mall noted that Gold also is a member of the RTM’s Transit Committee and “lobbies” the full RTM to support the agency’s full funding requests.

Others, such as Seth Braunstein, District 6, and Matthew Mandell, District 1, said that while changes might benefit the agency, removing Gold as director now would leave the town without an advocate for Westport’s interests if consolidation or other modifications become a future option.

In the end, Gold was reappointed by a vote of 28 in favor, two opposed (Mall and Ross Burkhardt, District 3) and two abstaining.

Representative Town Meeting Moderator Jeff Wieser during Tuesday’s meeting. / Photo by John Schwing

Ropes “learning” program OK’d at Staples

School officials’ request for an allocation of $63,200 for a “High and Low Rope Adventure Learning Program” at Staples High School also prompted a lengthy discussion Tuesday.

The RTM was asked to fund the project with an allocation from the town’s federal grant of $8.4 million under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice told the RTM the ropes installation would be incorporated into the school district’s overall approach to ensure “social and emotional” wellness and team-building skills for students. Those issues have become particularly urgent because of the pandemic’s impact on young people, he said.

The project, despite its relatively modest cost, drew many questions and comments from RTM members, ranging from security and liability concerns, access to outside groups, its relevance to the overall curriculum, and why the costs could not have been absorbed in the recommended ’23 school of nearly $130 million.

Kristin Schneeman, District 9, wryly noted that members appeared to be devoting “the longest time debating the lowest-cost item on the agenda.”

Many others spoke enthusiastically about benefits students could derive from the ropes course — some based on personal experience — and the funding easily won approval by a vote of 29 in favor, three opposed and one abstention.

Easy approval for sewers, school security, union contract

The rest of the legislative body’s agenda won quick approval unanimously. Those items include:

  • $3,100,000 to extend a sewer line Evergreen Avenue, Evergreen Parkway, Tamarac Road, Lone Pine Lane, Gorham Avenue, Compo Road North and Brookside Drive.

The new sewer line would service 124 properties, with an assessment of about $25,000 per unit. 

  • $1,431,000 to extend a sewer line to Whitney Street, Roseville Road, Fernwood Road, Plumtree Lane, Pamela Place and Ledgemoor Lane.

This new line would connect 37 properties to the town’s sewer system, with an estimated assessment of $39,000 for each unit. 

  • $105,973.50 allocated from the town’s American Rescue Plan Act grant to purchase hardware for Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone systems for five schools to coordinate with townwide cyber security measures. 
  • To ratify the collective bargaining agreement between the town and the union representing 56 municipal employees in various town departments. 

The four-year pact with the Westport Municipal Employee Union Local 1303-387, Council 4, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, is retroactive from last July 1 through June 30, 2025.

Raises provided under the agreement are 2.75 percent in the first two years and 2.5 percent in the last two years.