Published November 30. 2012 4:00AM
Nine towns are asking the state Department of Transportation - which operates transit services in other parts of the state - to take control of Southeast Area Transit in an effort to strengthen public bus service in the region.
SEAT's member towns also have jointly requested that the DOT cover the cost of cleaning up a 90,000-gallon fuel leak discovered behind SEAT's Preston bus facility.
The cost of the ongoing cleanup has left mayors and first selectmen dissatisfied with SEAT's operations and looking for ways to save their main bus provider.
"We're really hoping for improved service," said Ledyard Mayor John Rodolico, whose town paid $9,100 this year for SEAT runs on routes 12 and 117. "That is the absolute objective of any changes that we make."
SEAT was established in 1975 by eight towns to provide public bus service to the region. Its members now number nine: East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Ledyard, Montville, New London, Norwich, Stonington and Waterford.
In 2011, it operated at a loss, with expenses of roughly $6.9 million and revenue of $6.4 million, according to an audit. The state provided $3.1 million of SEAT's operating budget.
The bus company owes the state at least $464,000 for the fuel leak cleanup and was sued by an independent cleanup company for $415,000 after allegedly failing to pay for services. SEAT paid $464,124 in fuel cleanup costs in 2011.
Mayors and first selectmen in SEAT's member towns said they learned of the fuel leak in April 2011 - eight months after it was discovered. They have spent the last several months in closed meetings trying to find a way forward. James P. Redeker, the commissioner of the state DOT, attended one meeting.
SEAT's board of directors voted to sue the state for $795,443 and argued the state DOT, which owns the Preston bus facility, was to blame for the fuel leak. But in order for the nine-town request to the DOT to move forward, SEAT must drop the lawsuit.
The request for DOT to take control of SEAT, developed as a resolution drafted last month, was made because of a growing concern that towns eventually would be left on the hook for the fuel cleanup.
"There is a consensus that there is room for improvement in the service," New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said of SEAT. "There's also a consensus that we want to avoid these liabilities."
SEAT's member towns, specifically Waterford and Griswold, have complained publicly about the bus service in recent months. Waterford delayed paying its $43,924 bill for the current fiscal year and Griswold has yet to pay its entire bill.
Jaroslaw Pizunski, president of SEAT's drivers' union, also has raised concerns about a number of issues at SEAT, including buses being delayed because, he said, there are not enough drivers to cover shifts when someone calls out sick.
"There are times - it happens on average twice a month - that buses are not coming out on time for an hour or two," Pizunski said recently. "People are left waiting for the buses."
The nine-town resolution has been accepted formally by the legislative bodies in Griswold, Groton, Ledyard, Montville, Norwich, Stonington and Waterford. East Lyme and New London are expected to vote on it in the coming weeks.
DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said Thursday he could not comment on the proposal, but he said recently that the agency's primary concern was making sure customers get the service they deserve.
The nine-town resolution says the DOT has offered to pay for the fuel cleanup as long as SEAT withdraws its lawsuit with the state and a new transit management model is developed for the region. That could mean the DOT takes over.
"Nine months into this, we're getting to a point where we might see closure," Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward said.