Bus service for 9 area towns faces higher fuel bill

Preston - The Southeast Area Transit budget will increase by nearly 6 percent in the coming fiscal year if the transit district's board of directors votes next month to approve the budget proposed by its general manager.

The increase - $340,089 - is 5.86 percent more than the current fiscal year's budget.

The increase is mainly the result of a projected $252,130 increase in SEAT's vehicle operating expenses, according to the proposal, which was submitted this week by SEAT General Manager Ella Bowman. The district is projecting diesel fuel costs to rise 20 percent, by $150,000.

The proposal shows that SEAT in the current fiscal year received about $3.12 million from the state, which accounted for roughly 54 percent of its budget. Earlier this week, the transit district raised fares for the first time since 2006.

"We're just starting to look at the numbers for that," Bowman said this week of the fare increase. "There will be a 17 percent increase in fare revenue if we do not have a drop in ridership."

SEAT provides bus service to nine towns - East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Ledyard, Montville, New London, Norwich, Stonington and Waterford.

It has endured a period of financial difficulty since 2010, when a diesel fuel leak was discovered in an underground fuel line behind the transit district's bus facility on Route 12.

The leak, estimated at 90,000 gallons by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, led SEAT to seek an outside company to handle the environmental cleanup. That company, United Oil Recovery Inc., eventually filed a lawsuit against SEAT for $414,946, plus interest and legal fees.

United claims the transit district refused to pay its outstanding bills after it realized the scope of the leak. The case is ongoing in Meriden Superior Court.

Bowman and members of SEAT's board of directors have disputed the DEEP's estimate of the leak. Bowman also disputed a claim made by the company's drivers that they had alerted her to a fuel smell coming from behind the facility prior to the leak's detection.

The Day on March 13 filed a Freedom of Information request with Bowman seeking SEAT's budgets, audits and fuel records from the last five years. She said this week she and her staff are still compiling the data.

Meanwhile, a legislative proposal that would have given the region's council of governments more authority over SEAT has yet to come up for a vote in the session of the General Assembly.

Most of the transit district's board members have argued against the proposal, which in part would allow the council to appoint three members to the district's board. One board member, Margaret Curtin, who is a representative of New London, shared a different view.

"I would welcome that, quite frankly. I told my mayor that," Curtin said of the council proposal. "I would welcome (them) coming in and sitting on our board."

Curtain argued that the transit district needs to improve by expanding to other towns, and it needs to work on other inadequacies, such as providing transit service on major holidays.

She also called for the state to take a closer look at SEAT's operations to see what improvements can be made.

"I think the state has to take a look at how they subsidize us," she said. "They really need to take a hard look."



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