Bus district to seek state money rather than cut services

Preston - Faced with a budget shortfall, Southeast Area Transit directors voted Wednesday to first seek funding from the state and support from the region's council of governments, rather than cut services.

SEAT's Board of Directors will request in a letter that the state step up to cover some of the costs for the transit district, which is facing an estimated $300,000 to $400,000 budget deficit for the 2014 fiscal year, according to Chairman Paul Altman. The state Department of Transportation took over management of the transit district in March.

The transit district will also write the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments requesting the support of the agency, which represents 20 municipalities in the region, as well as its help in applying for funds to cover a ridership study discussed during the DOT takeover.

Montville Mayor Ronald McDaniel, a board member, said at Wednesday's meeting that SCCOG could potentially help seek a federally funded Surface Transportation Program grant for a study of the region's ridership, operations and transit data. He said it was important to know the data on services needed and used before attempting to reduce any routes.

Altman added that he would be very reluctant to cut any services, because so many people in the region rely on public transportation to travel to work or appointments. He also emphasized that in general, public transportation never makes a profit or breaks even.

"I think it's the state's time to step up to the plate and fund the services," he said.

Without state funding to cover the budget deficit, the alternatives are to cut services or approach the nine member cities and towns for additional support, which Altman said could be financially difficult for the communities. SEAT's members are East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Ledyard, Montville, New London, Norwich, Stonington and Waterford.

SEAT will also inform SouthEastern CT Enterprise Region of its plans.

SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll thanked the staff for having brainstormed ideas to reduce costs, but remained optimistic that the state would help the district.

"I'm very hopeful that the state will come through so we don't have to look at service cuts," he said.

In January 2012, SEAT said its expenses exceeded $6 million in the most recent fiscal year, but generated about $5.5 million in revenue. The state funded 70 percent, or about $3.8 million, of its revenue, while fares amounted to 19 percent of its revenue, The Day reported.

Altman said after the meeting that the state paid an outstanding bill for $350,000 but did not reimburse the transit district for prior payments related to a 90,000-gallon diesel fuel spill at SEAT's Route 12 bus facility in Preston. The fuel spill was detected in 2010.

Carroll said SEAT wants to know whether DOT was supposed to pay other bills under the takeover.

SEAT's member towns had asked the DOT last year to take over. Under the takeover agreement, the DOT also would assume SEAT indebtedness, including the $350,000 for a lawsuit brought against the district by the oil company it hired to clean up the spill. SEAT also would withdraw its own lawsuit against the DOT, according to a Feb. 5 letter from the transportation commissioner to the SEAT chairman outlining the agreement's terms.

According to the letter from Commissioner James Redeker, his department would "report to the board on any needed changes to the local funding level for the continuation of transit services."

k.drelich@theday.com

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