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Committee Explores Bus Ridership History

By James Lomuscio

Created in 1969 due to community demand, the Westport Transit District soon became drawing card for the town and a model for other municipalities. In 1977, its annual daytime and commuter trips via eight minnybuses and 12 passenger vans topped 700,000.

Today, despite the town’s population growth, the number of yearly trips is just 74,622, so low that the Board of Finance in March cut almost half of the town’s $248,000 contribution to the transit district’s budget subsidized by state and federal grants.

Though the amount was later restored by town bodies due to commuter protests, the initial cut was a enough of a wake up call for town officials to demand fixing what was wrong with the system.

Tuesday night before the newly formed, 10-member Citizen’s Transit Committee, Louis Schulman, Westport’s Transit District director, and Nancy Carroll, its deputy administrator, chronicled the Transit District’s history and highlighted turning points that have cut ridership.

Established by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, the citizen’s committee is charged for one year with evaluating Westport’s bus transit system for usage, costs, routes and ultimately making recommendations for improving efficiency and service. 

Schulman’s overall thesis: the more you cut funding and limit service routes, ridership decreases. Boosting ridership is a committee goal for environmental reasons, as well as a way to solve parking problems at the train station.

“The more you cut, the more you see a disproportionate drop in ridership,’ said Schulman. “Limitation in service is the reason for the decrease in usage.”

A series of financial and organizational setbacks starting in 1978 slowly began eroding ridership, increasing fares and eliminating routes, he explained.

The first blow came in 1978 when Westport Taxi Service, which closed down due to the Transit District, sued claiming unfair, subsidized competition, winning a $1 million court settlement.

By 1980, annual ridership declined to 492,000, dropping to 436,161 a year later when the Maxytaxi, a bus that would pick up people at home if they called ahead, ended, according to Schulman.

From 1982 to 1992, route consolidations continued to chip away at ridership, all of it exacerbated by employee and management issues, financial difficulties and fleet deterioration.

“I recall one steering wheel coming off while driving,” said Schulman.

The buses were in such bad shape, Schulman said, the state Departnment of Motor Vehicles ordered them off the road, and in 1992, the Transit District filed for bankruptcy.

That same year, at the request of the town and the state Departnment of Transportation, the Norwalk Transit District took over the Westport Transit District, obtaining a fleet of used vehicles from Danbury, New Haven and Bridgeport, according to Schulman.

From 1995 to 1999, the bus service saw a steady growth in annual ridership from 137,477 to 180,099, despite its consolidation of routes. Caroll attributed those increases to a marketing campaign.

That high number would soon drop by 30,000, Schulman said, as the Transit District eliminated its service along the Post Road due to the establishment of the Coastal Link Service.

With today’s ridership at its lowest, no weekend service, limited hours, fewer routes and tight state and federal funding, the Citizen’s Transit Committee is looking for ways to attract more riders.

According to its mission statement, the committee will cooperate with the Transit District directors, the Westport Police Department, other town bodies, and outside agencies, including the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWPRA) which is also conducting an evaluation of Westport’s bus transit system.

“The committee will be a resource for these bodies, and hopefully members will contribute time and expertise in such areas as marketing, publicity, and use of social media in helping promote Westport’s transit system,” it states.

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