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Albert has been following the problems at OCTA. She knew that staffers had proposed cutting night-owl service months ago, but she thought it was all talk. “I was hoping they were going to change their mind,” she says.

The pirate sitting in the back of the same bus isn’t quite so well-informed. Still in his day job’s baggy pink pants and puffy yellow shirt, Jeff—who’s a cast member at Disneyland and doesn’t want his real name printed—responds to news of the bus cuts with a look of stunned, wide-eyed panic. “That’s not good,” he finally says. “Shit, you’re fucking with me, right?” He often works closing shifts, which means he takes two night-owl buses to get home.

After a few minutes, his shock fades. Disney has a commuter-assistance program—they provide his bus pass—so hopefully they’ll be able to figure out a way home for him. Still, he’s surprised. “I knew they were going to do service changes,” he says, “but I thought they’d already done it.”

Keith May
In the dead of night, as few as 12 people might board a route in an hour
Keith May
In the dead of night, as few as 12 people might board a route in an hour

Troy Stinson, too, is surprised to hear the night buses he has been taking home from work will be cut. On a Thursday night, Stinson sits on the 60 heading west down Westminister Avenue. His hairline receding and his eyes framed by black-plastic glasses, Stinson says he’s legally blind, which is why he can’t drive. To get home from his manufacturing job in Fullerton, he takes the 57 south and transfers to the 60. But he lets out a quick, staccato chuckle when asked how the cuts will affect his commute. “I actually got laid off today,” he says. “[They said,] ‘This is your check, and this is your last day.’”

He spends a moment thinking about what the loss of the night owl means. “If the bus wasn’t running,” he says, “I wouldn’t have even taken this job.”

*     *     *

For a transportation agency in a budget crisis, the hardest decision isn’t necessarily about whether to cut service—it’s about where and when to cut it.

That fact came into stark relief over the course of 2009, when OCTA staff released a report containing four different strategies for implementing the 300,000-hour cut the board had asked for. One strategy eviscerated service on less-used lines—including many of those in the county’s southernmost and northernmost cities—in favor of preserving heavily used “core” service in central county. Another distributed cuts more proportionally across the system. All four plans eliminated night-owl service entirely, which would have meant there would be almost no buses between midnight and 4 a.m.

Scores of riders packed OCTA “community meetings” and public hearings to weigh in on which plan to adopt. One after another, they got up during public comment and gave their stories, from the handicapped person whose route to vocational training was on the chopping block to commuters regularly passed by on street corners by buses already too packed with riders. At nearly every bus-related meeting, Jane Reifer, a slight 45-year-old with brown corkscrew hair, came up to the microphone and gave her take on OCTA’s dilemma.

“I represent a group called Transit Advocates of Orange County,” Reifer said at one hearing. “Our overriding philosophy regarding cuts is to retain service where there are no alternatives. This is so that we do not strand riders. This is different than what sounds like a very laudable goal: OCTA’s goal of inconveniencing the fewest amount of riders.”

Reifer’s message wasn’t new to OCTA’s board, and neither was Reifer herself. She founded Transit Advocates toward the beginning of the previous decade to fight an earlier overhaul of the bus system—known as “straight-lining”—that left many riders confused and adrift. The group had since then gone into dormancy, but it re-formed in 2009 after OCTA’s budget problems began. The Advocates—loosely organized, with an e-mail list of about a thousand and a regularly updated blog at transitrideroc.com—have had an impact on the decision-making process, OCTA staffers say. A few of their suggestions have been included in the official reduction plan, according to Scott Holmes, OCTA’s manager of service planning.

The Advocates’ biggest contribution, though, may have been hammering home one idea to OCTA board members: Bus cuts should protect “span,” a term that refers to the total length of time over which a bus route runs in a day. To the Advocates, the only morally defensible way to reduce bus service is by preserving span as well as the system’s geographic footprint, so some semblance of bus service remains for people who have grown to depend on it. Cutting the first or last bus of the day on a route means that the route’s riders are mobile for fewer hours of the day—which has a big impact on their ability to get to and from jobs. And while reducing the midday frequency of heavily trafficked routes would be a big hassle for a lot of people, wholly eliminating less-used routes (night-owl among them) might devastate the lives of a handful of riders.

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