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02/27/2019 07:30 AM

9 Town Transit Pilots On-Demand Bus Program

9 Town Transit (9TT) is reaching out to business owners in Westbrook, Old Saybrook, and Centerbrook to garner support for a new flexible, on-demand bus system pilot program. It hopes to begin the three-month pilot in early May, offering point to point service for locals without a car and employers a way to attract more workers reliant on public transit.

The pilot will test a “microtransit” system inspired by services like Uber and Lyft that will allow riders to book a ride using an app on their phones or computer. Those uncomfortable with that type of technology can call 9TT and staff there will book their rides for them. Passengers will also be able to book trips in advance. For the length of the pilot program, the service will be free.

The system uses algorithms to plan rides for all those requesting them with the goal of creating the most efficient and quickest rides for everyone. The vehicles used will be small buses that can seat up to 12 people with additional room for a wheelchair.

The service will be door-to-door, meaning that passengers will not necessarily have to wait at or be dropped off at bus stops.

The primary focus of the program is to provide a first mile/last mile service, said 9TT Executive Director Joseph Comerford. Those who take trains to Old Saybrook station, for instance, often have to wait for buses to complete their trips to work.

“We hear over and over again that there’s a need to get employees from the cities out here into the suburbs and then get them off into jobs that might not be walkable from the train station,” said Comerford. “They’re not that far, but they’re not walkable. And we don’t have anything designed to do that right now.”

9TT has had difficulty offering regular bus routes that complement the train schedules. Train schedules change frequently, Comerford explained, and changing bus schedules in response affects those who don’t commute by train but rely on those bus routes.

The service area of such a system has to be limited in order to provide efficient service. The pilot will encompass an area that includes the Old Saybrook and Westbrook train stations in addition to Centerbrook.

9TT is working with a company called TransLoc, which lists more than 350 transit agencies across the country as clients. This pilot program is one of two state microtransit pilot programs. The other, in Norwalk, is in midstream and has been successful, Comerford said.

TransLoc used data provided by 9TT and the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG) to “simulate demand and figure out what the service area should be, based upon…current ride demand, not just in our system but through road traffic,” Comerford said.

It also modeled “how many vehicles we would need and what kind of corresponding wait time we would have,” he continued. “Our goal was to have an average wait time of less than 10 minutes in this area. The modeling shows that we would average about an eight-minute wait” from the time when a request for a ride is placed.

For the pilot program, there will be two buses running during peak times and one off-peak, Comerford said. Tentative hours for the service are Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s a pretty robust amount of service and we were able to cover a pretty big area, much bigger than what we initially expected,” Comerford said.

The program has the support of the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT), although the level of state funding hasn’t been entirely determined, he said.

“The state has not committed to a dollar amount yet, but they have committed to provide some funding,” Comerford explained. “We’re going to provide some local funding and the state has asked us to get some local businesses to be stakeholders with some sort of financial contribution but mostly being a stakeholder so they’re out there helping promote it with their employees.”

Taxpayers fund public transportation through federal, state, and local funding measures; fares provide only a small portion of the cost, said Samuel S. Gold, executive director of RiverCOG.

“By being able to scrap the schedule and instead…provide [bus service] on demand, we might be able to make better use of that time that we pay for,” Gold said. “We’re paying drivers regardless of whether there’s passengers in the bus or not.

“We can make use of information technology as has been pioneered by Uber and Lyft in the same sort of way they use them to sort of maximize the use of our public transit fleets and drivers,” he continued. “It’s going to be used in a way that gets more people to where they need to go and complement our rail system better.”

While designed as a 1st mile/last mile system to primarily benefit those commuting to and from work, the service may be used by anyone. As long as the starting point and destination are within the designated area, anyone will be able to use the bus system, and for free—at least during the pilot period.

Water’s Edge Resort & Spa Vice President Tina Dattilo said the service could benefit a number of the hotel’s employees, particularly those in housekeeping, many of whom commute from New Haven. Groups of Water’s Edge employees are currently carpooling to work—an inconvenient arrangement, as their schedules are not identical.

“We need additional staff, especially in the summer, and we have a hard time getting people from New Haven here because they say it’s too long of a commute or it’s too expensive,” she said. “So I think they would benefit from this”

In addition, Dattilo said, Water’s Edge guests often travel from New York and have a difficult time getting from the Old Saybrook train station to the hotel, as Uber and taxi services can be scarce.

Comerford is confident that state funding is coming, but he and Gold emphasized the need for some private support.

“The state isn’t looking for a lot of private money,” Gold said, “but they’re looking for something symbolic from the large employers who may benefit from this, that they’re willing to have a little bit of skin in the game to help with this. In exchange, employees will have a more reliable way of getting to work.

“The state is looking for opportunities to leverage private money wherever it can,” he continued. “When it comes to the state and its budget problems, a project like this with some private money potentially is going to look a lot more attractive than something that doesn’t. So we’re hoping that if we can bring some of the major employers in Centerbrook, Westbrook, and Old Saybrook to bring a little bit of money to the table and this trial is successful...when the trial is completed, the state will continue to fund and support this program.”