To the vast majority of county residents, this means nothing. Most people sleep then. And most of those who don’t likely have access to cars. Night-owl ridership is sparse; in the dead of night, as few as 12 people might board a bus in an hour. The most-used night-owl line, the 43, attracted an average of 208 people per weeknight in fiscal year 2009—less than 1.3 percent of that line’s average total weekday ridership.

But the impact on individual night-owl riders will be great. After all, it’s a service intended for those who have no other way to get home after getting off work late at night. For some, it will mean miles of walking or biking in darkness. For others, it will mean lost jobs or lifestyle changes. And for a few—the people you see sleeping in the back of the 2 a.m. bus, surrounded by shopping bags and covered by a ratty blanket—it means one less option for staying out of the cold.

“It’s horrible,” says Sarah Catz, director of UC Irvine’s Center for Urban Infrastructure and former OCTA board member. “OCTA doesn’t have a lot of transit to begin with. This county has grown, and many people have grown to need these services.”

Night owl isn’t the only bus service disappearing March 14. Bus operations system-wide will be cut by 150,000 hours on that day, meaning some daytime routes will also disappear. Others will get shorter, run less frequently and arrive at each stop more crowded than before.

It’s the latest round in the systematic downsizing of Orange County’s transit infrastructure that has been going on for more than a year, and when it’s finished, it will leave the bus system between 20 percent and 28 percent smaller than it was at the beginning of 2008. The reductions mark the reversal of years of growth in Orange County bus service.

By some accounts, night-owl service should have been killed years ago. System-wide, the average OCTA bus route returns 23 cents to OCTA for every dollar the agency spends on operations. On night-owl lines, though, less than 9 cents per dollar is recovered, even though the cost to operate is calculated as the same as during the daytime: about $85 per hour.

That inefficiency led to a few internal discussions over the years about ending night-owl service, Leahy says. But it never seemed necessary. A strong economy led to sales-tax windfalls for most of the decade, which meant OCTA was flush with cash and could continue to expand the bus service. The number of revenue vehicle hours in the bus system—roughly, the number of hours the buses can carry passengers in a year—rose from 1.3 million in 1998 to more than 1.9 million in 2008 as new routes were drawn and frequency of service on heavily trafficked ones was beefed up.

“Orange County was getting to the place that its transit was attracting a lot of discretionary riders, not just the transit-dependent,” Catz says. “It’s a shame that the state has ripped this out from under us.”

The state: That’s who OCTA administrators and board members blame for the $330 million shortfall the agency’s bus system faces over the next five years. And by a few big measures, they’re right to do so. Out of OCTA’s $260 million yearly bus-operating costs, $20 million has been historically funded though a program called State Transportation Assistance. The state’s budget crisis led the governor and legislature to suspend the program in 2008.

The housing collapse and recession have also hurt OCTA’s bottom line. Sales-tax revenues to the agency are down by $50 million annually. Unemployment has contributed to decreased ridership, and the ongoing service cuts and a January 2009 fare hike contributed to the number of bus boardings plummeting lower than expected. “Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong,” Leahy says.

To close the budget gap, OCTA’s board of directors has approved cutting 500,000 service hours from the system by March 2010. Nearly half of those cuts have already been made. A lawsuit against the state, though, means there’s a chance the legislature will be forced to turn over some of the money it has been withholding from local transportation agencies. On that hope, the board voted in November to shrink the next round of cuts from 300,000 to 150,000. The move was sold as a generous softening of the blow to riders. In the words of OCTA board member and county Supervisor Patricia Bates at an OCTA committee meeting, “We can’t send these people off a cliff, in a bus.” If the state’s money doesn’t return, though, service will be cut again.

*     *     *

Linda Albert was doing all right. Six months ago, her car broke down. That wasn’t so bad, she says. The shift she works at Wal-Mart in Westminster ends at midnight. That lets her catch the 60 bus heading east, transfer to the 57 north and arrive home in Anaheim by 1:30 a.m.

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