STONINGTON — After learning of some improvements to Southeast Area Transit’s Route 10 run through Stonington, the Board of Finance approved funding Tuesday to keep the service rolling through the end of the fiscal year.
The board approved $14,675 for the SEAT route that has been under scrutiny after the town’s cost rose from $14,000 in fiscal 2017-18 to $24,000 in 2018-19.
In August, a pilot program using alternative transportation provided by the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center in conjunction with the Department of Human Services was proposed as a substitute for the bus route, with the idea that the town would save $9,000.
At the time, it was rumored that the state was going to discontinue the route because it had the lowest ridership in the state and the highest per-rider cost. The finance board did not want to pay for the entire year’s cost of the bus route if it might be discontinued, and approved $10,000 to keep the service going through December.
Leanne Theodore, director of the Department of Human Services, said her staff looked at a number of transportation alternatives, including a private for-profit transportation company, but nothing was comparable, in terms of cost, to the services SEAT was providing.
Her department also conducted a survey among riders. But it was by riding the bus that Theodore’s staff discovered that a number of riders use the bus only for transportation to and from work, and don’t use the other services provided by her department.
“We knew what subsidized housing people’s needs were,” she said. “But these are people we don’t usually see.”
It became clear that the route needed to be made convenient for workers, Al Fritzsche, director of finance for SEAT, told the board.
He said the bus leaves too late in the morning and stops running too early in the afternoon to accommodate a worker’s eight-hour shift.
“My effort is now to create a schedule so we can serve workers,” he said.
A new policy has already been instituted: having the bus on Route 108, which stops in Olde Mistick Village and serves Groton and New London, wait for the Route 10 bus so that workers do not have to wait hours for a connection.
“It was supposed to be connected to Route 108 and it was supposed to aim at workers but it did neither,” said Fritzsche.
The bus route costs $253,000 to run. The town pays about 8 percent of the cost, the state pays about 72 percent and ridership fares pay about 20 percent, Fritzsche said.
“It’s pretty typical nationwide,” he said. “It’s about $6 per rider, and fares usually about $2 maximum, but averages less because of seniors, discounts for people with disabilities and monthly passes.
With changes in connectivity with other bus routes, the ridership has already risen by 20 percent in the past two months, First Selectman Rob Simmons told the board.
“SEAT has committed to adjusting the routes rather than us paying for what we had in past that didn’t meet our needs,” he said.
Board member Michael Fauerbach made the motion to approve the appropriation with the stipulation of seeing ridership metrics on a regular basis. The board approved the appropriation unanimously.