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Sunday, March 24 News

Westport train shuttles face major budget cut

WESTPORT — The Board of Finance cut over half the budget for the Westport Transit District, which operates shuttles from around town to Westport’s train stations.

“Ridership has dropped 25 percent over the last five years and was dropping for the previous five years. Whatever money we’ve spent has not led to increased ridership,” Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern said.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the BOF cut next year’s transit budget from a proposed $355,000 to $155,000.

The shuttle service to the train station is an important resource for residents, Transit District co-chairman Marty Fox said.

Nonetheless, Stern said the significant cuts to the train shuttles are a strategic decision to reduce a program that is unpopular among residents.

“Everyone says what a great service, but very few people ride them and it’s not good for the environment to have few people in a diesel engine bus,” Stern said. The buses don’t reduce traffic congestion at peak times because the buses run early in the morning before traffic builds up, he added.

“As someone who does not have a car, I find it a problem the Board of Finance cut money out of the transit budget again,” resident Sal Liccione said.

No reductions will be made to the Transit District’s door-to-door service that primarily serves people who would otherwise not be able to leave their home due to disability or lack of income, Stern said, adding “That’s an important service that won’t go away.”

Stern said the BOF left some money in the transit budget to ensure the district can still find a way to provide train shuttles for the handicapped and those who can’t afford rides. In recent years, many commuters who don’t have a train station parking spot have opted to use ride-sharing apps such as Uber to access the train.

The BOF should not cut the program because the majority of the costs are borne by the state, Representative Town Meeting member Peter Gold said.

Each ride costs $22 per rider, with $5 of that cost coming from the rider fare; two-thirds, or about $10, borne by the state; and the rest covered by the town.

“A lot of it is state money, but as we’re learning, if we waste state money, nasty things happen to our taxes,” Stern said.

The Parks and Recreation Department was the other town body to receive a budget cut from the BOF. Park and Recreation Director Jennifer Fava proposed a budget of $6,397, which is an over 3 percent increase from last year’s budget that was itself a five percent increase over the previous year.

Due potentially to poor weather and increased prices last summer, the total number of daily beach parking passes went down in the 2018 season, which contributed to a $1.1 million reduction in the department’s revenue, although revenue from seasonal beach passes went up.

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The BOF made significant investments in the Parks and Recreation Department last year to improve the beach, and now need to control costs at the beach in areas such as overtime for beach employees, Stern said.

The Transit District and parks department will have the opportunity to propose restoration of the cuts at another BOF meeting on April 3 before the budgets goes to the Representative Town Meeting for final approval.

It’s too early to say whether the final town budget will result in increased taxes for residents next year, Stern said. He said if the state forces the town to contribute an estimated $700,000 to the state education or teacher pension fund, taxes will likely rise.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

Sophie Vaughan|Reporter, Westport News

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