By James Lomuscio
As Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) Monday night approved a $76,251,688 municipal budget for next year, one town department took center stage — the Westport Transit District (WTD).
In April, the Board of Finance denied the restoration of $115,000 it had cut from the WTD’s proposed $355,000 budget in an attempt to phase out its underutilized shuttle service to the town’s two train stations.
But Monday night, the shuttle service, a perennial whipping boy of the finance board, caught another reprieve from the RTM.
The legislative body restored $115,000 by a vote of 32 to 0 with 1 abstention, far more than the supermajority the RTM needed to overturn the finance board.
Before the vote, more than a score of residents and town officials spoke in favor of the restoration.
They said the shuttle was important to the town’s brand, reduced traffic congestion, made Westport more attractive to incoming families and enhanced property values in the face of a more and 1,000-person long waiting list for railroad parking permits.
“We’re in a battle to attract and retain people in Connecticut, and the Transit District is one of those things that differentiates Westport from other communities,” said First Selectman Jim Marpe. “It’s part of who we are as a community as well.”
Sarah Blumberg said that her husband takes the shuttle to the train because “we have one car.”
“If we lose the funding, families like ours will have to buy cars,” she said, adding that the WTD would also lose $600,000 in state subsidized funds, “a ton of state money, and we will not get it back.”
Selectwoman Melissa Kane urged support for the restoration. It was echoed in a letter she read from Dewey Loselle, chairman of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee.
“We need to reinvest ourselves in public transportation,” she read, adding that “accessible transportation is a right not a privilege.”
RTM member Ellen Lautenberg called the shuttle service to the town’s Green’s Farms and Saugatuck train stations “consistent with our environmental goals and community values.”
And RTM member Carla Rea, a real estate agent, said the shuttle has always been a strong selling point with buyers when confronted with the reality of a two-year, parking permit wait.
“Uber would not sell a home,” Rea said.
Though he said he would vote for the restoration, RTM member Charles Carey took a more jaundiced view of the shuttle service he said he feared “was not sustainable” with 71 bus runs per day, averaging fewer than two riders per bus. Low ridership, he said, was not “a green solution.”
Martin Fox, WTD co-director, argued that over the past year the district has initiated “a comprehensive marketing program reminding what the benefits of the shuttle” are.
He also said the WTD will be marketing to reverse commuters and has an email campaign, as well as a computer app that lets riders track their buses.
“We’re studying the development of a new commuter model,” he said.
In other matters, the RTM: voted unanimously to approve a $2,071,049 Railroad Parking budget for next year; $5,046,581 for the Sewer Fund; and $284,000 for Wakeman Town Farm.
The RTM also voted unanimously to require that property taxes for the fiscal year ending June 30, be due in four quarterly installments the first days of July, October, January and April, while motor vehicle tax be payable in a single installment.
A scheduled vote on a proposed ordinance prohibiting the use of single-use plastics/Styrofoam materials in food service businesses was postponed to Tuesday’s meeting following a scheduled vote on the Board of Education’s $118.5 million budget, which the Board of Finance cut by $250,000 in March.