Stamford station shuttle-merging meets resistance

March 21, 2019

STAMFORD — Autonomous shuttles may be the solution to Stamford’s gridlocked corporate bus terminal at the train station but finding a shorter-term fix has proved difficult.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” said Barry Berold, owner of Park Avenue Coach, which runs about 18 shuttles at the station. “But I know what the problem is.”

Currently, there are over 60 different shuttles that take passengers from Stamford Train Station to businesses, apartment complexes, hotels, and the University of Connecticut-Stamford during weekdays on one-stop trips. In all, the shuttles make 400 trips daily.

And that level of service has just about doubled in the last five years.

“This has just exploded,” said Joe McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County.

The added stress has only added to congestion at one of the city’s key access points along Interstate 95.

Considering consolidation

A study released in 2016 suggested consolidating trips as a possible solution, which would entail shuttle buses stopping at various locations instead of just one, but that idea has been a nonstarter for shuttle operators and business owners.

Berold said the reason is simple: “Because people want to get to work. They don’t want to go on a city tour.”

Business owners have also argued that they’re willing to pay for the service of having an exclusive shuttle bring workers to their campuses with no stops.

Michael Pollard, chief of staff for Mayor David Martin, said businesses in the city rate transportation as their number one concern.

“Their number one priority is getting their employees to and from their location in the smallest amount of time,” he said.

Berold said it’s also about businesses getting to control their own operation and even brand it.

Nonetheless, Pollard and other city officials believe consolidation is the way to go, even if there are clear obstacles in the way.

McGee said many trips from different shuttle providers already go to the same region, so it’d be easy to join some rides into one and form clusters.

One could go to High Ridge, while another goes to the south side of the city, he said, citing two examples.

“I think there’s a workable solution here, but each party will have to give something up,” he said.

Berold said it shouldn’t be the shuttles having to compromise.

He sees the buses as providing a service. While many have pointed to the number of shuttles as a major cause of congestion, Berold argues the buses are helping, not hurting, traffic.

“My personal opinion is buses should be given preference, because we alleviate traffic” he said, adding that one shuttle could take 30 workers to an office, a vast improvement over 30 separate cars going to the same location.

He does share the opinion with city and state officials that the cramped drop-off and pick-up location for shuttles under I-95 is inadequate.

Because of the number of shuttles, a guard is stationed at the location to direct traffic. Even with that assistance, passengers still commonly walk in front of shuttles and cause potentially dangerous situations for drivers.

McGee referred to it as a “free for all.”

Berold said one quick fix, or improvement, would be adding a second drop-off location on the south side of the station, which could service that side of the city and reduce the number of shuttles on the north side. That idea, however, has gained little traction with the state Department of Transportation.

The drive to self-driving

Thomas Madden, the city’s economic development director, is hoping autonomous vehicles will be the solution.

The city is currently waiting to get a response for a federal grant it applied for last year.

The grant would help fund the project, which would involve adding the infrastructure to operate the vehicles. He said the city would buy three or four shuttles to run as a fleet, transporting passengers to various locations around the city.

The initial planned route would travel north on Washington Boulevard, turn right at Tresser Boulevard, travel south on Canal Street, and finally turn right at North State Street before returning back to the station.

The effort would be a partnership between the city, the state DOT and UConn, with the state leading the charge.

Unlike the concierge service currently in place at the station, Madden said the autonomous buses will operate on-demand, like Uber or Lyft. In other words, passengers could book a spot on a bus through their phone.

Madden said the vehicles would only add to the current service, not take away. However, he said that if the shuttles are successful, businesses can decide to drop their typical shuttle service, which would alleviate the glut of shuttles at the station.

He said testing will begin in 18 to 24 months, and that there could be passengers on the buses by early 2021.

“In order to make it successful, it has to be convenient and efficient,” he said.