Proposed cuts to bus districts, Shore Line East create concern
Every day to get to work, Canterbury resident Jennifer Lortie takes the Route 9 Southeast Area Transit District bus at 8:20 a.m. from Lisbon to Norwich.
From Norwich, she then connects to another bus, run by the Windham Region Transit District, to arrive at her job as an assistive technology specialist in Willimantic.
"Without the bus, I wouldn't be able to get to work," said Lortie, 34, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair. She said that if her regular bus time was cut, she would have to ask her family and supervisor to see if they could accommodate a change in schedule.
Lortie is one of many southeastern Connecticut residents who rely on the bus to get to work, go shopping or get to doctor appointments. But the Southeast Area Transit District is facing possible service reductions that could go into effect July 1.
The state has warned it would cut subsidies to transit districts, including SEAT, by 15 percent for the upcoming fiscal year, along with making major transportation infrastructure cuts, if the legislature doesn't address issues with the Special Transportation Fund that is projected to head into deficit by fiscal year 2019. In fiscal year 2021, the districts could potentially be hit with a 50 percent cut.
Shore Line East rail service also is facing substantial proposed reductions that would eliminate all weekend service and more than half of the weekday trains, starting July 1.
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SEAT recently alerted the public on social media about possible service reductions among the cuts being considered: elimination of Sunday service; all night service after 7 p.m.; Route 10 in Pawcatuck and Mystic; St. Bernard's service; and Three Rivers service. The transit district also is considering reducing Saturday service; service on Route 8 between Jewett City and Lisbon Landing and Route 9 between Norwich and Lisbon Landing; and the frequency of mid-day bus service. Raising the cost of the 31-day pass is another option.
SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said the list represents a menu of some of the options that the SEAT board of directors could consider implementing if the state enacts the 15 percent cut to the transit district. The SEAT board likely would discuss proposals in March, if still facing a cut, and would hold public hearings on any proposed changes.
Carroll said SEAT wants to impact the fewest number of riders, but knows that any cuts will affect people.
"We hope that the General Assembly will recognize the magnitude of this problem, and they have some hard decisions to make, but it's really up to them because they're the ones that provide the revenue ultimately," Carroll said.
SEAT Board Chairman Ronald McDaniel, the mayor of Montville, said people use SEAT to travel back and forth to work, doctor appointments and the grocery store, and cuts would have a larger economic impact.
"That's going to have a negative effect on employment clearly," he said. "A lot of people need that ride to work."
Amalgamated Transit Union chapters across the state are distributing thousands of fliers, which warn of the cuts and ask people to call their legislators to "find a permanent way to fund the depleted Special Transportation Fund," according to Jaroslaw Pizunski, the president/business agent for ATU Local 1209 and Chairman of ATU Connecticut Legislative Council.
“I am very, very concerned because of the reliance of so many residents of New London on the SEAT service,” New London Mayor Michael Passero said.
Passero said that while the New London routes have strong ridership numbers, so they won’t likely be cut, New London residents would be affected by potential cuts to weekend service and evening service. He said many people work at the casinos and the Crystal Mall.
'Easy and quick'
From July through January of fiscal year 2018, SEAT reported 559,130 boardings, down by 19 percent over the same period in fiscal year 2015 and down by 8 percent over that period in fiscal year 2017.
Cassondra Kunkel, 38, and her husband, Michael Barrows, 39, Jewett City residents who were riding the 9 SEAT bus on Thursday morning, said many people would suffer if bus service were reduced. The couple took the bus Thursday to get to Kunkel's doctor appointment in Norwich and for Barrows to get to his construction job in Lisbon.
Barrows said many people in the region rely on the bus to get to work or school.
"They really need it," he said.
Christopher Foutch, 45, who works at Mohegan Sun, said the potential cut to evening bus service would affect him.
"I work overnight," he said. "I usually take the bus to go to work at night."
Without bus service in the evenings, he would have to try to find a ride to his job, since Uber would be too expensive, he said.
New London resident Jeanette Rios, 40, said she recently took SEAT buses to take her children shopping and for lunch at Lisbon Landing one weekend and dinner in Waterford as a special night out. SEAT is an inexpensive and convenient way for her family to travel, she said.
"As a low-income mother to two children, it's easy and quick," she said.
Students use buses
Meg Wichser, transition and retention specialist at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, said the express bus between Groton and New London and the college helps students get to campus for classes and then leave in time for their jobs. Before, students had to spend an hour and a half to two hours on the bus, which often wasn't a viable option.
Many students also take night classes, so a cut to SEAT's evening bus service would be concerning, she said.
The proposed state cuts would mean reducing transportation when there is a need for more transportation in southeastern Connecticut, she said.
And at a time when the state is talking about community college consolidations, the addition of new express buses could help take Three Rivers students to other community colleges to take programs not available at Three Rivers, or vice versa.
"We need more transportation and not less, if we're going to continue to hold on to equal access and help the state be able to offer more programs to students," she said.
Stonington exploring options
As towns themselves face cutbacks from the state, Stonington is investigating whether there's a more efficient and cost-effective alternative to maintaining the Route 10 bus in Pawcatuck and Mystic. The town pays about $24,000 annually for the service that is not heavily used, so the town is exploring other options for the people who use the bus, such as some kind of on-call ride service, Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said.
"There are a lot of variables here and a lot of unknowns," he said. "It's hard to make a decision when the information that we're getting continues to change."
A transit district serving shoreline towns, 9 Town Transit, also is warning that proposed cuts starting July 1 could lead the district to consider options such as fare increases, the elimination of Route 2 service between Old Saybrook and Chester, a reduction in service on Route 1 between Old Saybrook and Madison and on Route 3 between Old Saybrook and New London, and reduced Dial-A-Ride service. The district plans to hold public hearings before making changes.
Joseph Comerford, executive director of 9 Town Transit, said the proposals still are "up in the air" and would not all need to be implemented, but the reduction in state aid would have an impact.
The bus district, which serves 100,000 riders a year, takes many people, including those in the New London area, to and from their jobs in retail, at call centers and in the service sector along the shoreline, he said.
"It would have a huge impact on their lives and ability to get to their jobs," Comerford said.
A potential cut of 50 percent, proposed for districts in fiscal year 2021, would mean "bare bones" service, he said.
Shore Line East
The state Department of Transportation will hold a series of public hearings across the state on proposed service reductions to Shore Line East and branch lines of the New Haven line and rail fare increases, with a 10 percent fare increase slated to go into effect July 1. The DOT then is proposing 5 percent rail fare increases for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The hearings also will cover fare increases for buses directly operated by the state DOT.
Under DOT's proposal, Shore Line East would face substantial cuts, starting July 1, that would eliminate all weekend service and more than half of all weekday trains.
Richard Andreski, DOT's public transportation chief, said the department tried to preserve the trains that serve the most people, such as the westbound weekday morning trains.
DOT also is proposing to raise the car fares on the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury and the Chester-Hadlyme ferries by $1, starting July 1.
Jim Cameron, founder of The Commuter Action Group, a commuter advocacy group, and a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, said the cuts to Shore Line East would have a devastating impact, from falling real estate values to more traffic on Interstate 95.
The cuts could make people move away from a community they chose for the reliable transportation system, or make new people less likely to move to that community, he pointed out.
Passero said the proposed cuts would reverse efforts to develop Shore Line East into a real commuter rail service that includes stops in New London.
"We’re finally getting there and what they are proposing sets us back to the Dark Ages," he said.
If You Go
What: Talk on transportation issues by Jim Cameron, founder of The Commuter Action Group.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21
Where: Old Lyme Town Hall, 52 Lyme St., Old Lyme
What: DOT public hearings on proposed rail fare increases and service reductions
When: 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28 (snow date: March 7)
Where: New London City Hall, Council Chambers, 181 State St., New London
What: DOT public hearing on ferries
When: 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28 (snow date: March 6)
Where: Chester Town Hall, Conference Room, 203 Middlesex Ave., Chester
A full list of additional hearings that will be held across the state is available at bit.ly/CTtransithearings.
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