The Bus Stops Here

In the 1970s, Westport pioneered the minnybus.  Brightly decorated vehicles plied the streets of town, using a hub-and-spoke system at Staples and Jesup Green.

The Westport Transit District added maxytaxys.  Anyone could call for a ride anywhere — but the buses picked up other riders too, so getting from Point A to Point B could involve trips to Points C, D, E, F and G along the way.

By 1992 though, declining ridership, inefficient operations and deteriorating equipment caused near collapse of the system.  The RTM reached out for help.

Though the Westport Transit District still exists, it has no employees or paid administrators — not even a bus.  The Norwalk Transit District operates our system, providing great economies of scale.

Westport mass transit has 4 components:

  • Fixed routes: Buses that run to and from the Saugatuck and Green’s Farms train station, all around town.
  • Commuter shuttle: Buses that run between Saugatuck station and the Imperial Avenue parking lot.
  • After-school shuttle: Buses that run from schools to the Y, library and downtown, stopping at churches along the way.
  • Door-to-door service: Buses that provide rides for elderly and disabled riders, including physical assistance.

Last year, the WTD counted just under 100,000 trips.

The annual cost to operate Westport’s bus system is a bit over $1.3 million.  However, the town pays only $281,000.  The rest of the funds — 80% or so — comes from fares, and (mostly) state and federal matching grants.

Last week, the Board of Finance voted to cut $100,000 from the Westport Transit District’s proposed budget.  Combined with the subsequent loss of matching grants, the district would lose about 35% of its funding.

If those cuts are sustained, some tough decisions must be made.

“Who do you pick to go?” asks Jim Hood, volunteer co-director of the WTD.

“The schools?  People might say parents or neighbors could drive their kids.

“The trains?  People could say, why can’t they get there on their own.

“The elderly and infirm?  Well, people could say, those buses are inefficient and expensive.”

The dilemma, Hood says, is that “mass transit systems are a service, not a business.  They run at a loss all across the country — but they’re there because they’re important to people.”

A commuter pick-up at the Saugatuck station.

Hood compares transit with another government service:  the fire department.  “Do you divide the number of fires each year by the number of firefighters and the cost of the equipment?  Of course not.  We have a fire department because it’s necessary.”

Some politicians have suggested a fare increase.  Hood says that won’t help much.  Laws regulate how much the fare can be raised — and half of all riders buy Metro-North UniTickets, offering discounts for both trains and buses.  The WTD has no say over those prices.

“It’s easier said than done, but Westport has to figure out if it’s the kind of town that wants this,” Hood says.  “This,” he explains, is “a service for people — some of whom need it as an economic necessity.”

Once mass transit it cut “drastically,” Hood notes, ridership drops dramatically.  That has a domino effect.  Soon there is no service at all.

Bus riders are just learning of the proposed cut, Hood says.  As they do, they realize its impact.  Some are asking why the reduction is so steep.

The next step, Hood says, is a Board of Finance restoration meeting.  The RTM can also restore funds.  He hopes members of both bodies will “hear about the effects, and make an informed decision.”

If restoration fails, Westport’s mass transit riders will have to figure out a new way of getting to the station, getting downtown after school, getting around if they’re elderly or handicapped.

In other words, they’ll have to start reinventing the wheel.

64 responses to “The Bus Stops Here

  1. Do the math; using the data you present, it costs $13 per rider; 1,300,000/100,000. Using what you descibe as the cost to Westpor cost it comes to $2.81 per rider. How much of a subsidy is adequate and/or justified? Using Hood’s argument almost any government expenditure is for a “necessary” activity. No politician likes to see expenditures go down or his pet program cut. BTW some businesses provide services. Ever get a hair cut?

    • Princeton '82

      I surmise from the tone of the article that since Westport only contributes a fraction of the cost and relies on state/federal monies to keep the system afloat that we, the taxpayers, aren’t paying for it. Different bucket, same wallet.

  2. Shortsighted

    All this talk about the need to reduce traffic and emissions (yea, let’s spend millions of $$ to install free electric car plug-in chargers at the RR station !)…

    Yet instead of an initiative to increase ridership and use of a good system (not great but good), the solution is to cut service…makes no sense to me. Also, when one considers the amount that the matching grants provide – aka “free money,” restoring the $100,000 seems like a lay-down to me. As with anything else in this town, it will require the bus-riders and transit-believers to “fight City Hall” and make their voices heard.

    Plus, once this transportation program is diminished, it will likely fizzle out and would take tremendous effort to get it re-instituted …just look at what happened in the ’70’s…

    The loss of any type of public transportation that serves our community at this time is nothing short of SHORT-SIGHTED.

  3. Suzy Blakely

    Why not charge for a sticker for those parents that drive their kids to school when they can walk or ride a bus. Make it $100.00 a year. It can help pay for the mini-bus system, cut down on the traffic, and help cut down on the air pollution. While we are at that, let’s band plastic water bottles in all after school and Saturday sports, or at least learn to pick them up. Let’s learn to respect the town we all proud of. The people that ride the buses or have their kids use the system seem to care about our traffic and environment problems. Thanks

    • Being the parent of three young children I can tell you I would prefer my kids to take the bus, but there are legitimate are reasons why they can’t always do so.
      My daughter has chorus and orchestra twice a week that begins before school which requires being dropped off.

      Also, the bus is NOT reliable and has been an on going problem. I except this during the first few weeks of school, but after that it should come within a 5 minute window. Especially during this cold and long winter, I’m not going to have my first grader stand around for 15 minutes waiting to see if it will ever come (there’s been a few occasions when it never arrived). In addition, working parents cannot wait indefinitely for the bus to decide when to come. It’s just easier to drop them off and go about your day.
      Then in the afternoon I sometimes pick them up since sports and dance activities begin at 4 and if they take the bus they will not arrive home until 3:30 -3:35. I want them to unwind, have a snack and get ready without rushing, hence the afternoon pick up. If I do so, they are home at 3:05.
      So before you volunteer us to pay a premium, which I would NEVER do, think about the many reasons parents do drop off and pick up their children.
      And there are those times when they were out late and I let them sleep in an extra half hour and opt to drive them so that they are fresh and ready for school.

      • Do you show up late to work after a late night at the ball game? The rule in our house was you can stay up as late as you want, so long as you make it to the bus the next day – and ours was the longest bus ride in town.
        I did drive my daughter to Staples some mornings, with her bike in the trunk so she could get where she needed to go after school.

        • They’re aren’t late to school, I just drive them so they can sleep in that extra half an hour by not taking the bus.
          And it’s only for times when they’ve been to a Wedding or returning back from vacation, etc., to no fault of their own.

          • The Dude Abides

            What happened to your Tea Party convictions??? Financially, it is a loser, John. Gotta go. Kids used to be able to get anywhere in this town by hopping a school bus to a buddy’s house if they were going away from home after school. Need to bring back the independence. Otherwise, as with this “Y” generation, they will be living with ya until they are thirty.

      • Suzy Blakely

        That is your decision to have the kids sleep in or be involved in all the activities but we are paying over $19,000 per kid a year in this town.
        That are taxes well spent. I say that as a homeowner with no children. But if the school bus system does not work complain and get it fixed. I live by Bedford and Staples and the traffic on North Ave is like walking on 95 with commuters, parents and Staples’ kids. The people that use the mini- bus and have the kids use it as well are at least attempting to alleviate some of the traffic. Maybe we ought to look at why were are involved in the Middle East and start sacrificing a little bit like our troops are?????

        • We are in the Middle East because of oil. If we drilled here, we wouldn’t be there or paying $3.90 a gallon for gas.
          But that’s another story (or thread).

          • “Drill baby drill” is like saying “IBM Selectric, IBM Selectric.” Need to move on to new sources of energy.

          • The ME argument is a red herring. Most of our imported oil comes from Canada and Mexico. Besides, if we didn’t want to import oil we would not have spent the last 35 years building windmills and burning soy beans.

          • The Dude Abides

            I don’t think the dependence on oil is sustainable. We have to look way down the road with some vision (if that is possible with our ADD leaders)????

          • There is enough carbon based fuel in the US to last for at least 50 years. If oil were in such short supply, the price would be higher. Since 1980 the price of oil adjusted for inflation, using annual data, has fallen. There is plenty of oil, and it is cheap relative to the price of other goods and services. Windmills, electric cars, and burning up our food supply are not going to provide cheap and plentiful energy. Ears is determined to drive the price of oil higher; do you think he is long oil? The market does.

    • Good idea Suzy. No one is listening though, too busy flapping their egos.

  4. Ahhhh!!

    The good old minnybuses!!

    Many a fond memory of sitting on the extra high back seat and sway back and forth like an amusement ride on the way from Coleytown El. to the Y!

    • And the independence that we had! Any/every kids over the age of 12 could get on any bus and go anywhere. Our parents loved it too. And there were no cell phones, so we really were on our own.

      • John McCarthy

        I actually don’t remember the Over 12 rule ever being enforced, memories of my 8 and 9 year old brothers jumping on the mini bus to go downtown.

  5. anonymous II

    Why not charge a fare that covers the cost of operating the system? Why schould parents who drive their kids to school subsidize those who use the WTD buses?

    • As noted in the story, laws regulate the extent to which fares can be raised.

      • anonymous II

        Well then, the WTD will operate as a money loser. How many such losers can the town afford? A round trip on WTD buses costs $26. Pretty steep.

        • A cab ride is $7. door to door.

          • False. Westport cabs are expensive! I usually end up spending around $12 door to door (Coleytown neighboorhood).

          • I live closer to the train station and you are out in Coley so it will cost more.
            And you are right, the cabs are expensive here, yet still less than town buses and the cabs have to make a profit!

        • Still less than the $13-$14 one way cost of a bus ride.

  6. The rides cost $14 each, regardless of who pays for it. There are runs
    that go to employment locations in Norwalk, providing no benefit to
    Westport taxpayers. The vans get under 5 gallons a mile. The costs,
    with benefits, are out of proportion with the private sector.

    We suggested consolidating runs – eg pick up at commuter lots. Workers
    must have a way to get to the station – the commuter lot may be the
    best answer for consolidation of runs.

    We’re also looking at using the buses the BOE already pays for to do
    the after school programs, if the transit authority is unable to run
    cost-effectively. We understand the importance of these runs.

    I’ve made a plea to increase parking via two tiered parking – I
    suggest you email the Selectman’s office if you agree. Our home values
    would increase as people moving from the city are attracted to
    Westport because of no railroad parking wait.

    Avi Kaner
    Board of Finance

    • In other words, build a parking garage (nore cars on the road), let the BOE drive kids to after-school programs (who pays for that!), and ignore those who arrive at the RR stations and take buses to Westport (yes, Westport) work locations. In short, eviscerate Westport transit services.

      • If the WTD is so vital and such a great service, why not have the riders pay for it? According to data presented in the recent BOF discussion, fares cover less than 10% ($1.25) of the cost of a ride. Does that make any sense?

      • Curious – it’s hard to argue with someone who hides behind a cloak of anonymity. Are you a Norwalk transit representative???

        I’ll respond to each of your points:

        1) “Build a parking garage (more cars on the road)” – building a parking garage would reduce the round trips spouses make to drop off their spouses, so it would reduce traffic and emissions. The buses today idle spewing fumes into the atmosphere. People moving to Westport have to wait 4-6 years for a parking permit. A properly designed garage will enhance the railroad area and increase open space. Now we have an ugly sprawling paved forest of parking lots.

        2) “Let the BOE drive kids to after-school programs (who pays for that!)” – the taxpayer pays for it whether Norwalk Transit drives or the BOE drives. The benefit with the BOE is that we already pay for the buses. We need to compare the cost proposals.

        3) “Ignore those who arrive at the RR stations and take buses to Westport (yes, Westport) work locations” – we never advocated for this. We questioned the Norwalk runs that don’t benefit our taxpayers.

        4) “In short, eviscerate Westport transit services” – scare tactic that does not work. In fact, we may actually increase and improve services with consolidation to the commuter lot.

        Avi Kaner
        Board of Finance

        • If it is that difficult to argue with anonymity, why are you doing it? Just ignore me.

        • The Dude Abides

          Ms. Kaner: Knock off the “cloak of anonymity” mantra. Is is only being self-rightous and after Tuscon, just plain stupid.

          • “Dude” – you’re right. I apologize for the anonymity comment. I do however stand by my arguments. (as an aside, I enjoyed reading your comments)
            “Curious” – I answered you because it’s my duty as an elected official (unpaid volunteer) to respond to misinformation, whether anonymous or named.

            Avi Kaner
            Board of Finance

          • Your “duty” Mr. K aner, as in your oath of office? You are expressing your take on my opinions.

  7. Terry Brannigan

    Minibuss Reflections…Based on how long past their forecasted useful life those busses were kept in service, the Minibus must have been the best investment Westport ever made! I bet they were on the road 10 years after they were fully capitalized (and Westport certainly didn’t over spend on maintenance!)

    Between the diesel smoke and the bouncy springs in the back (that used to actually launch riders if, leaned over stance and bald tires they were a sight to see! However as a kid growing up in Westport, they represent some of my fondest memories. The minibus “pass” was pure freedom (to kids and parents alike). And Paul Flaxman’s Woody Guthrie looking father was a responsible friend to everyone who he took around town.

    • RE: Paul Flaxman’s Woody Guthrie looking father was a responsible friend to everyone who he took around town.

      Now THAT is a blast from the past…denim shirt, leather vest…right? The MiniBus had a “unique” sound too. You’d hear it long before you’d see it, giving you a clue how fast you had to run to catch it!

  8. At the subsidized cost of $2.81 a ride… the rides are cheaper than any other solution anyone can come up with to provide even this minimal service. I guess the BOF feels that once the elderly in town get to the point they can’t drive anymore, sitting in their homes all day is better than spending out of pocket, $2.81.

    I like the idea of charging parents of school age children a fee for a sticker that charges them for the privilege of driving their kids to school. Make it a large fee that might force them to reconsider using the school bus system. Thereby decreasing traffic congestion, pollution, noise, etc. Does anyone have the ridership figures for the school bus system.

    • What a great idea! Why not charge every driver a large enough fee so that no one drives? Won’t that creat even less pollution and congestion?

    • Spoken like a true feel good, open mined liberal forcing their ideology upon us all without any consideration to unintended consequences.
      I think you would have done real well living in former Eastern Bloc countries.

  9. Anonymous – have you heard of negative externalities?

  10. The Dude Abides

    You can bike or walk anywhere in this town. Don’t need the damn buses or the expense. Sick of hearing the whining. A country that would rather send their boys to war than carpool or jump on a bike!!!

    • Dude, you can’t ride a bike anywhere useful in this town, and I’ve ridden almost every road here. And you certainly can’t ride to work or to shop. I don’t think they let the kids ride to the middle schools any more. There’s not a lot of whining here, just various comments (disjointed to be sure) about the importance of public transportation, and ways to reduce the shuttle runs by parents. Even now, the “late” bus from the schools to downtown starts around 4pm, well before most after school programs are done.

      • I’m glad the BoF is done financing this inefficient bus system.
        If anything, for all those who want to tax parents for driving their kids to school I’ve got an idea, charge the people who actually use the buses.

        So the people that use it don’t want to pay for it, but want everyone else to? Hmm…

        Instead of the taxpayers paying $14. for your free ride, you pay for it. Let the cost burden be paid by those that use it.

        • I meant the commuter buses not the school buses.

          And while we’re at it, the same for Amtrak too!

      • The Dude Abides

        Hogwash. I have been biking in this town for 55 years and still do. Bike to the YMCA every day. People bike to the train station. Solve a lot of problems in this world if everyone would bike i.e obesity, pollution, road rage to name a few.

        • Problem is, you can’t fiddle with your smart phone and drink a latte while riding a bike.
          In all seriousness, I’m all for, and have advocated, for bike lanes, side walks (at least close to the schools and down town) to promote biking and walking.
          You want to spend money on those things…well, now you got me.

          • The Dude Abides

            John: Westport is good on sidewalks/bike lanes. Actually, mostly courteous drivers too but far too many cars. If people would use the Mini-bus, fine. It seems it has become a dinosaur. Any way you look at it, it is tax money out of our pockets. The entire 1.3 million. I agree with Ms. Kaner. Put the money elsewhere. Perhaps, John, we could start a rickshaw business?????????????????

        • Lisa Marie Alter

          Dude: I agree with you on almost every issue, and agree that we could all use the exercise (and help the traffic & pollution)…

          But in this case, I beg to differ: I tried to ride up Compo Rd South from the beach to CVS one sunny afternoon (an attempt to combine E&E – exercise and errand)…I was terrified the entire way. The cars cut so close to me – almost grazing my handlebars – going fast (well over the 30 MPH limit)- with little regard for my safety – the so-called “bike lane” was woefully narrow, uneven, and littered with trash & broken glass, plus the periodic sewer grate – I swore I would never attempt that ride again.

          This is NOT a bike-friendly town and I challenge the entire governing body – if they wish to claim that Westport has “bike lanes” – to join us on a ride to fully experience the hazards.

          • Dude, I’m usually with you too on most topics too (well at least since you fell in love), but I beg to differ with you on the the bike friendliness of Westport. I think it is seriously lacking in the way of bike lanes and clearly defined walking paths for pedestrians wanting to venture downtown, to schools and most other public areas.

            Not to say other similar towns have it any better, it’s a Connecticut thing and maybe very hard to improve upon since the town and homes are hundreds of years old.

            It really is much too dangerous for young children (under 10) to ride their bikes around the neighborhood safely.

            Still I would like to see some plan and eventual implementation to make it better.

            Having lived in Southern California and Seattle I know how nice it is when they do exist.

      • No so Laz. Lacross practice begins at 3:30 and if my kids take the bus they don’t arrive home until 3:25 – 3:35.
        Pick up is a must if they are going to make it.

  11. For many people and for many years, the weekday commuter buses have been an essential part of our daily commute to work.
    What is ironic, is that the $324 annual cost of a commuter bus ticket exceeds the $225 cost of an annual parking permit. It should be the other way around.
    Perhaps one piece of the the solution is to raise the price of an annual station parking permit, thereby making the commuter bus a more economical alternative. With 1,454 parking spots at the station, an increase of $100 per year could more than fund the $100,000 planned cut. A policy like this would likely increase commuter bus ridership and bus revenue, without diminishing demand for those that still want to park at the station.
    I suspect that revenue from parking permits goes into a different pot. I leave it to our elected representatives to make whatever changes necessary to move the money to the right place, and to create the correct financial incentives to favor mass transit.

    • Parking fees get split with the State. What’s left over, can’t be spent on the general needs of the town. It has to be spent on maintenance or improvement of the rail parking lots. This is because we don’t own the railroad parking land, the State does. I think we should raise the fees regardless in order to clear the waiting list. Norwalk charges something like $900 a year!

  12. I TV watched most of the BoF meetings, and this was one area where I thought they erred, but I believe they were pushing for some Transit District introspection, and will restore the funds upon review. The benefit ratio is way too high to lose, and the BoF IQ is way too high to uphold this decision.

    I believe this is the salient point from Dan’s blog:
    The dilemma, Hood says, is that
    “mass transit systems are a service, not a business. They run at a loss all across the country — but they’re there because they’re important to people.”

    You cannot impose the standard business model on a service and expect it to work. While Avi has some great ideas, they should be implemented first and then the busses reevaluated. Do not stop the busses and pray for garages to grow. And the Transit District gentleman explained to the BoF why consolidation was a failed concept [# seat changes] for commuters and a complete loss to bus riders.

    Give ’em the money this year, discuss building the garage [how much $$$ ?], then make a more informed decision. Cutting the funds now is short sighted and premature. 2 to 1 odds for a full restore.

    • Public transportation is not a public good; there is rivalry in consumption. The WTD is a wealth transfer mechanism; it transfers wealth from those who do not ride to those who do. If you want a ride; you should pay for it. If you want ice cream; you should pay for it.

      • The Dude Abides

        Agreed. There needs to be an established benefit for riding the bus in terms of fiscal feasibility and societal goals. That seems to be lacking in this instance. Chocolate.

        • I always figured you for a Cherry Garcia or Phish Food 😉

          • The Dude Abides

            I am surprised you did not catch the Seinfeld reference on the rickshaw business. Kramer and Newman available for rides downtown. I bike 8 miles to the YMCA down Cross Highway and back 5 days a week. People swing out when passing me and wave me ahead when I STOP at intersections. I find plenty of room on the roads. In the summer, down by the beach, they are even more courteous. In Texas, unless hanging with Lance, I would be dead by now. Gotta disagree Lisa & John, Westport is a good ride.

          • I guess that would make you Newman 😉

          • Agree with the Dude that drivers in this area are surprisingly courteous to cyclists. Big improvement over NYC/NJ/Rockland county, where I used to ride. For adult cyclists, this is enough – I’d much rather have nice drivers than a bike lane. For kids and pedestrians, though, this town is horrible. There are no sidewalks except in a few areas, and no usable bike lines. A narrow, debris-filled bike/pedestrian lane is worse than none at all.