Some OCTA board members pushed back against the Advocates’ suggestions. “I personally want to reiterate the amount of people that are impacted,” said Curt Pringle, OCTA board member and Anaheim mayor, at the Oct. 26 public hearing. “As difficult as our decisions are here, I have a hard time saying that 1,700 people are the same as 17 people.”

The solution eventually approved by the board is a sort of compromise. Essential South County routes won’t be eliminated but will run far less frequently. Core service will become slower and more crowded. Night owl won’t disappear completely; instead, it will run only between midnight and 1 a.m. And for now, the cuts will be less bad than they could have been: 150,000 hours instead of 300,000.

But the reduced reduction comes as little comfort to the Transit Advocates, who contend that OCTA doesn’t have to be in the fiscal position it’s in. Transportation agencies across the country are facing budget problems, but not all are scaling back bus service as deeply as OCTA is. The Transit Advocates argue that OCTA’s inherent bias toward road-building over mass-transit operations has left the bus system vulnerable. “The bus system has had access to an awful lot of money over the years,” Reifer says. “We could have developed a world-class bus system, but instead have siphoned it off to other things.”

Keith May
Keith May

OCTA top brass, though, object to the idea that the agency disfavors bus service. “In my discussions with the board, they’re vitally concerned with having a robust transit system,” says OCTA CEO Will Kempton, who left the top spot at CalTrans to replace Leahy in June 2009. “Contrary to popular belief, we have a very significant transit-dependent population in Orange County. I certainly don’t see that as a second tier.”

Indeed, bus availability in Orange County reached a historic high in the past decade. Ridership numbers, though, didn’t climb as steadily. Some point to that fact as evidence that the purpose of bus service should be reexamined: Perhaps, OCTA director and county Supervisor John Moorlach publicly speculated in August, OCTA shouldn’t be providing bus service at all.

Kempton says there’s no guarantee that service hours will return to their previous heights when the economy recovers, but that might not be a bad thing. “If there’s anything positive that comes out of this economic climate, it’s the necessity to really look at how we operate transit service in this county,” he says. “One of the things that I’ve heard from board members all along [is that] nobody likes to see these kinds of cuts. But they’ve also said we need to see our most efficient service possible.”

But Reifer says riders were taking advantage of the bus in boom times. The problem was that other factors were hurting ridership. A fare hike in 2004 preceded a drop of nearly a million quarterly boardings on fixed-route buses. Just as ridership climbed above its previous level again in 2007, a drivers’ strike of more than a week that left most of the county without buses dented ridership for more than a year. Boardings eventually began to tick up again—just before the budget crisis hit, fares were increased and service was slashed. Given those facts, Transit Advocates say, it’s little wonder that November 2009 ridership was down 18.3 percent from where it was the previous year.

The big problem with the bus system in Orange County, Reifer says, is that its reserves and revenue sources have been used as ATMs for other projects. After Orange County’s 1994 municipal bankruptcy, the county entered into an agreement to pay off debt by drawing from the funds that were meant to support bus service. A net $15 million has been taken out of the bus system every year since 1997 ($38 million was taken out in 1996). By 2013, when the debt agreement ends, the bus system will be $202 million poorer than it would have been had it not been used to help bail out the bankruptcy.

And in 2005, the board voted to use bus and rail money to help the city of Santa Ana widen Bristol Street. It had originally been believed that Bristol would be a major route for the county’s proposed CenterLine rail system—but that project was killed in 2005. Since then, $35 million that could have gone to buses countywide has been spent on one municipality’s road widening, with an additional $31 million to be spent next year. The Transit Advocates have lobbied the OCTA board to withdraw from the Bristol Street project and recover the dollars—which could, for example, pay for the soon-to-be-eliminated night-owl service hours 22 times over. The board has looked at the idea but seems reluctant to go through with it. It just isn’t right, they say, to abandon a commitment like that.

*     *     *

The Brea Mall Transit Center is just two small wooden awnings in a parking lot, their brown paint chipped and blemished by leftover staples from long-removed fliers. By the time the 57 heading south starts its run around 2:13 a.m., there’s often no one waiting for it there. The bus will trundle down State College Boulevard for miles before seeing any passengers.

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