By John Toole
---- — DERRY — Directors of the Cooperative Alliance for Regional Transportation will appeal to Windham officials to stay in the transit system.
Windham selectmen this week voted to cut about $13,000 in funding and withdraw from the agency that serves six towns.
CART directors, meeting yesterday in Derry, agreed to reach out to Windham.
“Hopefully, we can get that vote changed,” said vice chairman Kathleen Costello, a Windham resident.
Directors expressed concern over the urgency for action with Town Meeting fast approaching.
“Time is certainly of the essence,” said Scott Bogle, Rockingham Planning Commission’s representative to the board.
CART officials hope to huddle with Windham officials as soon as possible, probably within the next couple of weeks.
Selectmen split, 3-2, Monday night in their decision to pull out of CART.
Selectmen’s Chairman Bruce Breton, Selectmen Roger Hohenberger and Phil LoChiatto voted for withdrawal. Selectmen Ross McLeod and Kathleen DiFruscia were opposed.
There was no opposition from citizens at the selectmen’s meeting.
“No one showed up and CART (representatives) didn’t show up,” Breton said.
CART directors expressed regret a representative of their agency wasn’t in attendance and said they were unaware the service would be discussed.
Breton had initiated the move to trim spending because the town has its own ride service residents can schedule at no cost. They pay $3 or $4 one way for rides they schedule through CART.
“We have a duplication of services,” Breton said.
Residents also save money using the town van.
“This is no money out of their pocket,” Breton said.
Under Breton’s plan, selectmen voted to cut the CART funding and use $8,000 of that money to pay for any added expense with the town’s van service.
“That may or may not be needed,” Breton said.
The town should see a savings of at least $5,000, probably more.
Barbara Coish, volunteer manager for Windham Seniors, supported the decision at the selectmen’s meeting.
“Absolutely, because it makes much more financial sense to do it this way,” Coish said yesterday.
Tom Case is a member of CART’s board of directors. He successfully petitioned the town to start its own van service more than a decade ago over opposition from selectmen. He, too, agreed with the decision.
“If we didn’t have the van, CART would be good,” Case said. “It’s not economically feasible to do it.”
Windham riders pay $6 for round-trip CART service in town, $8 for round-trips outside town.
Case said there were about 260 one-way trips last year, or about 130 times people used the service.
“That’s like $100 a trip,” considering the town’s $13,000 expense, he said.
At the CART meeting, Bogle said Windham’s ridership for CART had declined by nearly half year over year.
“I think it has been a concern for Windham that their ridership has declined,” Bogle said.
Case could not reassure directors that Windham might reverse its decision. He cited the town’s concerns over costs and fares, as well as the town’s own service.
In addition to Windham, towns served by CART included Salem, Derry, Londonderry, Hampstead and Chester.
Salem officials considered withdrawing last year, but selectmen restored funding when pressured by senior advocates.
Plaistow, meanwhile, is exploring whether to return to CART, which it left five years ago.
“We certainly are looking at CART very carefully,” Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald said.
Plaistow’s Elder Affairs Committee is reviewing the issue and Fitzgerald is expected to report soon to selectmen on the issue.
A concern for Plaistow is making sure seniors have access to medical offices and shopping.
Fitzgerald said a regional strategy may provide the best chance for financial sustainability of such a transit service for seniors.
CART directors yesterday said they expect Chester and Salem to continue in the system.
But George Sioras, Derry’s planning director, warned fellow directors his community could face tough budget decisions because of increased retirement system obligations.
“Potentially, there could be program cuts,” Sioras said.
Precise figures on ridership for Windham’s own van service weren’t immediately available.
Dennis Root is a volunteer driver with the Windham town service.
He said he takes a half dozen riders from Windham to shop at Walmart in Salem on Wednesday mornings.
Root picks them up at their homes and waits while they shop.
“I start picking them up about quarter to nine,” he said. “By the time I’ve got them all picked up, I drop them at the store about 10 o’clock. Then I pick them up at 11:30 and take them home.”
Root said other riders schedule trips to medical appointments through the handicapped-accessible town van. There’s also a surplus former police cruiser available for individual trips to cut down on gas.
“If I take you to a doctor’s appointment, I stay there,” Root said.
He said the riders appreciate the no-cost service.
“I think it’s a great thing for the people.”
Coish sees the town operated service as a better value for residents.
“When you call CART, you make a reservation and have to pay as much as $4, one way, and they will not sit and wait for you,” she said. “One trip to the doctor could cost you $8, and you would have to stay and wait for them to come back.”
Town officials have discussed using some of the $8,000 for stipends to attract drivers.
Town Administrator David Sullivan and other officials said they are unaware of any other New Hampshire community offering a similar service.
CART directors, meanwhile, were moving forward with reorganization yesterday.
Their executive director, Lee Maloney of Windham, is stepping down, but has agreed to serve in a part-time capacity, up to eight hours a week, tending to financial matters while the board seeks a new CEO.
CART also is lining up First Transit, a company that operates Manchester’s transit system, to oversee operations on an interim basis.
Given the CART restructuring and federal policy changes on transit funding, directors also anticipate reviewing routes and how they serve communities in the coming year.