By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — A decision by selectmen to restore $48,000 for the Cooperative Alliance for Regional Transportation has prevented the public bus service from possibly shutting down.
Selectmen voted unanimously last week to include the money in the town’s proposed $40.2 million budget for 2014 after Town Manager Keith Hickey cut the funding, according to Selectmen’s Chairman Everett McBride Jr.
The decision was welcomed by Derry planning director George Sioras, chairman of CART’s board of directors.
“We’re very pleased and happy that Salem decided to put that money back in,” Sioras said yesterday.
Without the money, the five-day bus service would have been in jeopardy, Sioras said.
“The service probably wouldn’t continue,” Sioras said. “It probably would have eliminated CART altogether.”
Salem residents are the most frequent users of the five-town service, which relies on federal, state and community funding. The loss of $48,000 would take a major toll on CART’s $639,000 annual budget, Sioras said.
“It’s a big chunk of our overall operations money,” he said. “The service would have to be either phased out or drastically reduced to one day a week.”
CART’s budget has taken a big hit in recent years as one community after another has decided not to fund the service. The latest was Windham, which eliminated its $13,000 annual budget for CART earlier this year.
CART executive director Annette Stoller recently said she still receives calls from Windham residents, wondering why they can no longer get a ride. Stoller could not be reached yesterday for comment.
But even with the $48,000, CART’s future remains bleak.
The board of directors will vote Oct. 15 whether to reduce its Derry service from five days to three days a week, Sioras said. If the cut is approved, it would take effect Nov. 1, he said.
A public hearing on the reduction was set for 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Derry Municipal Center, but no one showed up, Sioras said.
The move was proposed after Derry slashed its annual CART budget from $42,000 to $30,000.
Stoller has said CART may not expand service in Hampstead as planned. Other towns that use CART are Chester and Londonderry.
While its shuttle services to Salem, Derry and Londonderry are free to riders, other rides cost from $2 to $5, according to Stoller. CART makes 5,300 trips in Salem a year, followed by Derry with 5,100 trips, Sioras said.
McBride said Hickey cut the money from Salem’s proposed budget because he couldn’t justify the cost. Residents will vote on the budget in March following a final review by the town’s Budget Committee.
CART was asked to provide Hickey and selectmen with additional information on how much the service is used by Salem residents, prompting the board to continue funding the service, McBride said.
But the town will closely monitor its use over the next year and find residents to fill two of the three vacant Salem seats on CART’s board of directors, he said.
The same scenario occurred in Salem last year as well when Hickey eliminated money for CART. The funding was restored by selectmen because of the large number of homebound Salem residents who rely on the service to go to stores and doctor’s appointments.
The bus service also makes regular stops at the Ingram Senior Center and the Salem Housing Authority’s 182 apartments.
Housing Authority executive director Diane Kierstead said approximately 10 percent of the tenants rely on the service and would have to find other transportation if CART were eliminated.
“I do think it would have an impact,” she said.
Senior services director Patti Drelick said several seniors regularly use CART to get to the center.
“For those who use it, it does make a difference in their independence and wellness,” she said.