Downsizing: Does the town want to buy SPHERE bus?

The SPHERE bus organizers and its riders are seeking to downsize to a more economical van.
The SPHERE bus organizers and its riders are seeking to downsize to a more economical van.

SPHERE, Special People’s Housing Education Recreation and Employment, would like to replace the bus its been using with a more economical van. And it’s offering the town a chance to buy the 20-passenger bus —which the town uses two days a week to give rides around town to seniors, people with disabilities, and other folks in need of transportation.
“The bus is too large for them,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said of SPHERE. “And due to its size it requires a special license to drive. So the thought is to possibly get rid of that bus and buy a smaller van that allows more flexibility with people who are allowed to drive it — you won’t need a special license.”
SPHERE gets good use out of the bus.
“SPHERE uses the bus for our weekly programs — it transports our Ridgefield members to our art program, jewelry program, cooking program, music and performing arts program and for special SPHERE events,” said Rebecca Ciota, a member of the SPHERE board.
But the 20-passenger bus often isn’t full.
“Ridership varies among programs,” Ciota said. “... We recognize that we do not load the bus to capacity, and thus the cost per rider is significantly higher than if we were in a van.
“To maintain our fiduciary responsibility to our organization, we have begun exploring alternative transportation options," Ciota said, “always keeping in mind that at no time will there be a gap in transportation services provided to our members.”
The bus was purchased by SPHERE with help from a state grant, but the town has shared use — and operating costs — of the bus for years.
“It’s shared by the town and SPHERE,” Marconi said. “SPHERE owns the bus. We have a use of it.”
The town uses the bus to do medical runs for seniors and the disabled on one day a week, and on a second day each week it does a more eclectic run — picking people up from senior housing developments and stopping at a variety of popular locations in town.
“They’re running around town: Ballard Green to Prospect Ridge to Founders Hall to Stop and Shop — that kind of a loop,” Marconi said.
SPHERE secured a grant for the bus from the Connecticut Department of Transportation back in 2011.
“The funding covered about two-thirds of the purchase price of the bus, and SPHERE undertook a capital campaign fundraiser to raise money for the remainder of the bus acquisition cost,” Ciota said.
“Simultaneously, SPHERE applied for an operating grant from the state to alleviate the operating expenses to SPHERE, including insurance, maintenance, drivers, etc.,” she said.
“That grant provided 50 cents on the dollar for bus-related expenses, and we are required to submit bi-annual reimbursement requests to the state to receive the one-half reimbursement.
“To further defray operating costs, and to ensure that the bus was used to its fullest potential, as well as to expand the bus service to the broader Ridgefield population of individuals with disabilities and it’s senior population, SPHERE partnered with the Town of Ridgefield in 2012,” Ciota said.
SPHERE and the town signed a five-year agreement to co-operate the bus.
“Though that agreement expired in 2017, SPHERE and the Town of Ridgefield have continued to cooperatively utilize the bus in good faith,” Ciota said, “and we are grateful for the relationship that we continue to share with the town.”
The bus is getting more expensive to operate.
“As the SPHERE bus has aged, the maintenance costs of the bus have increased substantially,” Ciota said. “In addition, the operating reimbursements from the state have become increasingly difficult to obtain due to state cutbacks and administrative hurdles. It can take months to receive reimbursement from the state, if at all.
“Additionally, the SPHERE bus requires a special driver’s license endorsement that goes beyond a commercial license. This endorsement is generally carried by school bus drivers. However, because our SPHERE programs begin at 6:30, and the bus pickup begins around 4:30, most school bus drivers are not finished with their routes. This has created a situation where drivers are difficult to find.
“Despite numerous efforts by the town to hire more drivers, we have been unable to find as many as we need. We are so grateful and lucky to have a designated SPHERE bus driver, but without a backup, we are forced to cancel the bus (and sometimes our programs) when our driver is unable to work on a given evening...
“With a driver shortage and mounting operating costs for the bus, SPHERE has begun exploring the opportunity to purchase a passenger van that does not require a special license, and which will satisfy our members’ needs,” Ciota said.
“We have approached the town in this regard, and have given town the right of first refusal to purchase the SPHERE bus to ensure that the town loops can continue as they have.”
If SPHERE does opt to get rid of the bus, it could leave the town scrambling to maintain service.
“It would put us in a bind,” Marconi said. “Either we buy it, or come up with another way to provide the transportation services we provide.”
Overall, the town’s collaboration with SPHERE on the bus has been a success, in Marconi’s view.
“Based on usage it’s usually 50-50. Whatever costs there are are split by the town and SPHERE,” he said. “And, it’s worked very well.”