Bus company finds ally in opposition to oversight proposal

Another transit authority that provides bus service in the region has joined Southeast Area Transit in its strong opposition to a legislative proposal that would give the regional Council of Governments oversight over SEAT.

Joseph Comerford, the executive director of Estuary Transit District, said he believes the proposed legislation as written potentially could allow the COG to seek authority over his transit district, also known as 9 Town Transit.

It provides bus service to towns such as Lyme, Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, and provides a connection from Old Saybrook to New London.

"We felt the current structure already allows for the towns to control the transit district," Comerford said of state statutes governing transit authorities. "Just (the COG) having that power - whether they choose to enact it or not - the fact that it could be enacted is worrisome to our towns."

SEAT's board of directors recently argued against the proposal, which would require it to cede much of its control to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, a public planning agency with representatives from 20 towns.

If approved, it would give COG power over SEAT by adding three members to the transit district's nine-member board. COG also would have the authority to approve the SEAT budget and the appointment of the transit district's general manger and would select a certified public accountant to conduct an annual audit, according to the proposal.

The legislative proposal has been referred to the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Transportation and has yet to be voted on, state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, co-chairman of the committee, said.

Current state statutes give towns representation on a transit district's board of directors based on town population. Those laws also give the board of directors the power to set the transit district's budget and its member towns' dues.

Comerford acknowledged that 9 Town Transit has experienced financial difficulties. In 2006, the company depleted its reserve fund account, he said.

But Comerford said that first selectmen in several towns took over representation on the transit district's board of directors and that the hiring of First Transit, a transit management company, helped 9 Town Transit work through the issues. This, he said, was an example of the current system working properly.

SEAT, which also has a contract with First Transit, recently had financial difficulties of its own and, in the most recent fiscal year reported, expenses of $6 million and revenues of approximately $5.5 million.

One member of its board of directors suggested that an underground fuel leak behind the company's Route 12 bus facility in Preston was the underlying reason for the COG to suggest the legislative proposal.

The leak was discovered in 2010 and has been estimated at 90,000 gallons by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, although Paul Altman, chairman of SEAT's board of directors, disputed that figure.

An independent contractor that SEAT hired to handle the cleanup is suing the transit district for $414,946 and claims it did not pay for environmental cleanup it provided once SEAT realized the scope of the leak.

Meanwhile, Altman has argued against the legislative proposal because it would add a "new layer of unnecessary bureaucracy." He also argued that the COG has no direct financial stake in SEAT.



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