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SEAT preparing for ‘budget option’ that could cut state subsidy in half

Connecticut   ·   Public Transportation   ·

Southeast Area Transit District's leadership has warned that the transit district's state subsidy could be cut in half next year, under options identified if the state Department of Transportation faces a budget reduction.

The potential cut would have a "significant impact" on bus service in the region, SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said.

Carroll told the SEAT Board of Directors on Wednesday that the DOT has compiled options that would reduce the department's fiscal year 2018 budget by 10 percent from the current fiscal year, at the request of the state Office of Policy and Management.

OPM has requested all state agencies outline options for a 10 percent budget reduction over their fiscal year 2017 funding level, as it develops the biennium budget. One of DOT's proposed reductions would cut in half state subsidies to transit districts, like SEAT, for fiscal year 2018. The proposal eliminates the subsidies for fiscal year 2019.  

"This is a significant, radical change from the historical partnership that the state has had with independent transit districts," Carroll said. 

The state funds about 70 percent of SEAT's roughly $6 million annual operating budget, he said.

Carroll said the state document discusses the need for increases in contributions to the transit district from area towns to make up the loss, but he is not sure that would be feasible, given the municipalities' financial situations.

But he said the state acknowledges that a funding cut would result in a significant reduction in transit services throughout the state.

OPM spokesman Chris McClure said by email Wednesday that OPM must "assess each agency’s budget for (fiscal year) 2018 now to craft the best possible budget for the upcoming biennium."

State statute requires state agencies to submit estimated expenditures for the upcoming fiscal years. OPM asked each state agency to submit options for 10 percent reductions from their fiscal year 2017 budgets, so OPM could explore options to balance the budget in the upcoming biennium, he said.

State DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said by email Wednesday that the options that ultimately will be included in the governor's budget "will only be presented after a thorough and thoughtful review of the agency’s core services, utilization of those services, and external events that could impact the agency."

At Wednesday's meeting, the SEAT board gave Carroll the go-ahead to prepare SEAT's options for what the transit district's budget and service model would look like under a "worst-case" scenario of a 50 percent cut in state funding. He later will present the options to the board.

"We'd be talking about certainly the elimination of Sunday service, probably the elimination of Saturday service and probably the elimination of night service," he said.

He said the transit district also would analyze ridership numbers in the transit district's service area.

Carroll said SEAT is already at the "bare bones" minimum for frequency of bus service, so the only places left to cut are the span of bus hours or the service area.

He said SEAT also will have to consider how a reduction in ridership will then affect the fares the district is able to recover.

Norwich City Manager John Salomone classified the reduction in state funding to the transit district as a "jobs-killing program." He recommended reaching out to employers in the region, including the casinos, whose employees depend on the bus service to get to and from work, to make them aware of the budget option.

The SEAT board also discussed plans to reach out to state legislators.

Jaroslaw Pizunski, the president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1209, said by email Wednesday that residents rely on public transportation to go to work, school and doctors, and for some people it's their only means of transportation. He added that people with disabilities use ADA Transportation, which is provided along with the fixed route service.

He said the local economy will suffer under a cut to the transit district, as every dollar invested in public transportation generates $4 in economic returns.

The SEAT board's next scheduled meeting will be on Jan. 18.

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