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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Parents, Officials Take After-School Bus Fight to Norwalk

By James Lomuscio

Though only a handful of Westport parents and officials showed up at a public hearing in Norwalk today, their message to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in Washington was a strong one: do not discontinue the Westport Transit District’s (WTD) after-school bus service for children.

WestportNow.com Image
Today’s Norwalk meeting did not attract a large crowd. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com

“The rug has been pulled out from everybody’s feet right as school starts,” Dewey Loselle, Westport’s operations director, told Nancy Carroll, chief operating officer for the Norwalk Transit District (NTD), which runs the WTD.

“We’re really just asking for an extension of time until January 1,” he added. “We would like to look at whatever measures we can to make it compliant.”

The WTD learned from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) Aug. 1 that the after-school bus service it has run for more than 30 years, shuttling children to religious education and myriad activities, was in violation of federal law for a municipal bus service.

The DOT made its determination following the results of a Southwestern Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) study commissioned by the town in 2012 to examine the ailing WTD, which had dwindling ridership.

Upon learning the news the service would be discontinued, Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe had asked the FTA’s regional office in Boston for an extension until January, so the town could contract a private bus service. However, in less than two weeks Mary Beth Mello, FTA regional director, informed the town that there are no provisions for an extension, but that the town could apply for an exemption since it could not find a private carrier.

Today’s public hearing was the final step the WTA had to take in order to ask the FTA in Washington, D.C. for an exemption.

“We believed that we have been in compliance all this time,” state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg told Carroll, noting that the WTD had passed tri-annual federal audits. “It wasn’t until we had SWRPA do an audit in 2012 that we realized we had a problem. And inexplicably, we still have not received that (SWRPA) bus study.

“It was in theory unfair,” he added about the short notice the town received. “The school year began yesterday. I would ask that the federal government act expeditiously.”

Loselle noted that Steinberg has been instrumental in getting support in Washington for the exemption from U.S. Congressman Jim Himes, Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

According to Carroll, the WTD after-school bus service operates three hours a day throughout the school year, only when school is in session. One shuttle runs from 2:40 to 3:43 p.m., another from 2:50 to 3:50 p.m., and a third from 3:05 to 4:05 p.m. She said that the cost of services for the entire 2013-14 school year was $65,000.

“On such short notice, this will cause great disruption to out parents,” said Karen Bleitel, director of religious education for Temple Israel.

“The majority of our students use it from September to May,” she added, noting that 195 students are enrolled in religious education. “It has left our parents scrambling.”

One of this parents, Karen Pines, said she looked forward to the FTA granting an exemption since “this short notice is making it very difficult.”

Dan Sholler, another Temple Israel parent, said that since both he and his wife work “it’s a challenge.”

“It’s part of what makes this town attractive,” he said of the after-school bus service.

With no other options, he said, “I’m going to call around and organize a carpool.”

Jennifer Johnson, WTD co-director with Eugene Cederbaum,  said that at the risk of breaking with town officials she would like to see the exemption extended throughout the entire school year, not just Jan. 1, since the town has yet to receive the SWRPA study.

“I am deeply and personally saddened that the kids who started school yesterday do not have a bus to take them to Earthplace and other school activities,” she said.

Eathplace announced Aug. 15 it has arranged to provide its own private after school transportation. (See WestportNow Aug. 15, 2014)

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Posted 08/26/14 at 03:22 PM  Permalink



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