Former Westport Transit District Director Jennifer Johnson.
Former Westport Transit District Director Jennifer Johnson.

Dear RTM:

I urge the RTM to vote to dissolve the Westport Transit District and merge it into a larger, more efficient entity such as Bridgeport Transit, Norwalk Transit or CT Transit. 

After decades of declining ridership and acrimonious annual budgetary debates, Westport is not making progress toward improving transit options for people who live or work here. The onus for making such improvements should fall on the first selectwoman, as the chief executive of the Town, and not on the RTM. It’s not your job. Unfortunately, however, the statutory authority over the Westport Transit District remains with the RTM. So, if we are going to move forward, the RTM will have to take the first step: remove the existing bureaucracy which is impeding progress.

Background – 1980s to present:

The RTM has relied on volunteer efforts to oversee transit in Westport for over 40 years. Those four decades have been an experiment by the Westport RTM on whether it could run a transit district with no infrastructure, no buses, no staff and few if any public meetings. In the absence of professional staff, the RTM has relied on well-meaning volunteers to do their best which includes hundreds of hours spent arguing for hundreds of thousands of dollars to support their best efforts. But transit ridership has now plummeted while the cost-per-ride to taxpayers has skyrocketed. And traffic continues to get worse. It’s a mess.

It is time for the RTM to stop running a transit district.

Every year the RTM has the same debate. The Westport transit director scrambles during the budget season with an impassioned plea and mass email campaigns to convince the full RTM to restore funding that has been cut by the Board of Finance. Very little discussion is given to the reason for those cuts in the first place, namely: an astonishing all-in per ride cost of $30-$40 ($60-$80 round trip) on lumbering over-sized shuttle buses that typically operate 90 percent or more empty.  

The RTM is perpetuating confusion.

For the past two critical years, as the state government has been actively working around Connecticut to address transit needs, including by a remarkable level of consolidation and improvement in the greater Hartford region, the Westport RTM Transit Committee has simply abdicated any effort to engage the public and other players in a broader dialogue around transit, focused instead on the anemic Wheels2U program and the annual budget battle with the BOF. We are missing out on key opportunities. This routine has got to stop.

The RTM is a legislative body. It proposes ordinances, reviews budget items and weighs in on zoning matters. The RTM Transit Committee should not function as a managerial unit. While well-intentioned, RTM Transit Committee members lack the necessary knowledge and experience to effectively address complex transit planning, funding and operational issues.

Continuing to play the role as staff, board and guaranteed funding body for a dysfunctional transit district only serves to confuse the public. 

I’m sure the RTM will once again vote to restore the funding cut by the Board of Finance. But what the RTM does the day after funding restoration is the question that taxpayers frustrated by traffic will want to know. It is not your job to run a transit district, but it’s your duty to get out of the way. That in turn will hopefully prompt our first selectwoman (who serves as Westport’s designated Traffic Authority) to step up and more effectively direct transit funding, resources and professional services to Westport.

The 40-year experiment has failed. It’s time for the RTM to follow the Board of Finance’s lead, dissolve the Westport Transit DIstrict and allow Westport to move forward with real transit options for our community.

Jennifer Johnson

Former Westport Transit District director