Hooray for OCTA?

Award for top transportation agency is astoundingfor all the wrong reasons

Photo by Tenaya HillsBeing a bus driver in Orange County has never been easy. "A typical day on the job consists of people scamming you on fares—purchasing discounted fares and passes without the proper identification," said one bus driver who asked to remain anonymous. "The company chooses to look the other way." If you're patient with handicapped passengers, you can't stick to your schedule—and you get a reprimand from management. If you're impatient, the passenger complains—and you still get reprimanded.

Then there's the low pay. "Because I can't afford to live in the county that I work for, I live in Lake Elsinore and need more than an hour to get to work on time," the driver said. "Some days you can work up to 15 hours and are required to report back the next day just nine hours later. With the commute, it's more like a six-hour turnaround."

Some days he has no choice but to take the 91 freeway, one of the nation's most congested stretches of pavement. Even though he works for OCTA, which owns the toll lanes next to the freeway, he doesn't get any employee discount. "Needless to say, I don't see much of my family," he said. "I think it's a joke that they are getting this award—the way they treat the drivers and scam the public."

He's referring to the first-place award from the American Public Transportation Association that OCTA will receive at a national ceremony in Dallas, Texas, this September. According to a July 11 OCTA press release, the award "is astounding because OCTA's transportation system edged out areas such as New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Portland," all of which are renowned for their efficient mass transit systems.

"The nation is just realizing what Orange County residents have known in the last few years—that we have a truly exceptional transportation system that includes many ways of moving people," boasted Art Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer. "We are extremely excited . . . It's a testament to the vision and work of the people of Orange County."

Actually, the award is astounding, but for all the wrong reasons. Since Leahy became CEO in January 2001, neither he nor his agency has done anything to solve the county's traffic nightmare, install a meaningful mass transit system or improve the agency's abysmal track record on bus service. For example, OCTA has owned the toll road express lanes on the 91 freeway for more than two years and did nothing to relieve congestion there. Instead of eliminating the toll roads themselves—that would be the quickest way to solve the gridlock—or at least reducing the toll, the agency spent $3.3 million studying the problem.

Among other things, OCTA discovered that traffic between Orange County and Riverside is expected to double in the next two decades, to roughly half a million trips per day. Meanwhile, average rush hour speeds on the 91 freeway are at an all-time low—just 25 miles per hour. So in May OCTA raised peak-hour tolls by $3 to $7.75, thus ensuring that even fewer cars will use the toll roads. Nice work!

Then there's OCTA's much-vaunted CenterLine project, which explains why the agency hired Leahy as CEO in the first place. With his record of bringing mass transit projects to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, OCTA figured Leahy could accomplish a similar miracle here.

But after four years of promising to unveil a 29-mile-long light-rail project linking Irvine to Fullerton (originally the project was supposed to stretch 87 miles, from Fullerton to San Clemente), Leahy announced the project would only be 9.3 miles long. In February, the OCTA board officially killed the project, saying it would solve the county's traffic nightmare with rapid transit buses.

Speaking of buses, even though Leahy recently stated that OCTA's "outstanding employees deserve credit" for the agency's award, last year Leahy refused to provide his drivers with a modest 3.7 percent cost-of-living increase, nearly forcing Teamsters Local 952 into its first strike since 1986. In December 2004, after nine months of negotiations, OCTA finally caved in on the union's salary demands but refused to overhaul its customer complaint system, which the union claimed was unfairly weighted against drivers.

OCTA isn't against giving raises, of course. A month earlier, the OCTA board voted to provide Leahy, who was already earning $155,000 per year, a $45,000 raise (see Gustavo Arellano's "Choo-Choo-Choo-Ching," Nov. 19, 2004). As an added token of appreciation, OCTA chairman Gregory Winterbottom tacked on a $6,000 bonus for Leahy's "outstanding performance during the past year."

nschou@ocweekly.com

 
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