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.
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.”
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.