End of the Line
For some, OCTA’s soon-to-be-eviscerated night-owl bus service is a lifeline

On a bus heading north on Harbor Boulevard one drizzly December night past 1 a.m., Steve Woods is having the happiest ride of his life.

The ridership on Route 43 “night owl” bus always swells as it passes Disneyland. Tonight, there are barely more than half a dozen people in the coach, sitting on blue seats stamped with the logo of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA)—two triangles suggesting a roadway stretching into the distance. In the back, a young couple cuddles, the woman’s heavy mascara blotched by tears and the man’s puffy-jacketed arm around her. In the front of the car, a white-haired man sleeps, his chin bobbing against his chest. And in the midsection, where two rows of seats face each another, Woods—heavyset in a hooded sweat shirt, untied sneakers and stained sweat pants—grins.

Keith May
Keith May
Keith May
Keith May
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
Keith May
Keith May
Art Leahy, OCTA's former CEO, proposed the creation of night-owl service in 2002
Courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Art Leahy, OCTA's former CEO, proposed the creation of night-owl service in 2002
Jane Reifer's Transit Advocates have been fighting to preserve bus service
Keith May
Jane Reifer's Transit Advocates have been fighting to preserve bus service

He’s finally going where he wants to go.

“I was running,” he says. “Now, no probation. No running. No warrants. It’s over.” His hands, their fingernails grown out to maybe half-an-inch long, chop the air for emphasis. He lets out a laugh that booms over the bus’s rattle, causing the sleeping man a few feet away to stir but not wake.

Earlier in the night, Woods was released from the county’s Central Jail in Santa Ana. He’d been there for three months after violating probation on a drug offense from 2006. After being let out, he visited a friend near the jail, and then he hopped on the 43 bus to get to Anaheim, where his wife and mother both live. He hasn’t yet told them he has been freed.

“It’s a happy surprise,” he says. “This is gonna be my Christmas year.”

His joy dims a little when told that within a few months, to save money, OCTA will stop running the 43 as well as the other three night-owl lines that run between roughly 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. For a moment, he looks a little indignant. “I love this bus,” he says. “The drivers are real nice.”

Stronger words come from the passenger who just boarded at Harbor and Katella Avenue. Stringy brown hair falling past his thick neck, Gene Cottone speaks up when he hears Woods talking about the bus cuts. “A buddy of mine thinks it’s bullshit,” he says. “They have money. Instead of putting money into bus service, they’re putting it into light rail, which we don’t need, period.”

On this night, Cottone’s taking the 43 to get home after an evening spent at an Internet café in Garden Grove. “The bus is the only way I can stay out late,” he says. He doesn’t mind riding, he says, as he find it’s occasionally entertaining. “Once in a while, you see a hooker on this line,” he says with a chuckle. “They’re people, too.”

Cottone has been following the budget woes at OCTA through e-mail updates from the Transit Advocates of Orange County, an activist group. And he has watched the bus system’s service steadily shrink for more than a year now. “There’s a lot of pissed-off people out here,” he says, “and they”—OCTA—“don’t know it.”

Woods nods his head vigorously, but he’s smiling while he does it. Out here, for now, the bus is freedom.

*     *     *

When drawn on a map, OCTA’s four 24-hour bus routes cut the county into a tic-tac-toe board. The middle square contains a relatively small center chunk of the county, but the outside sections reach wide. Running along major streets—Westminster Avenue/17th Street, Bristol Street/State College Boulevard, Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard—the night-owl lines connect, at their ends, Long Beach to Tustin and Orange, Brea to Newport Beach, and Costa Mesa to Fullerton.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the routes started operating all night. That’s the year newly hired OCTA CEO Art Leahy—a mustachioed former bus driver who left for Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Agency in 2009—realized there was demand for public transportation past midnight. “As I traveled around Orange County, I’d see people in the very-early-morning hours riding bicycles or walking,” says Leahy. “It looked like the trips weren’t recreational. They were going to work or coming home from work.”

Sometime after 1 a.m. on March 15, though, the four night-owl buses will pull into their garages and retire for the night. For most of the three hours following that—and for most of those three hours every night thereafter—Orange County residents will have almost no county-run public transportation. The eight-year experiment with 24-hour bus service will have ended.

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.

On an early Sunday morning on the 57 heading up Bristol Street, Albert slumps in her seat. A big black bag sits to her side, and her hair is pulled back under a blue handkerchief. When asked a question about the bus, she apologizes. She’s too tired to talk. A moment later, though, she strikes up conversation. “You know they’re cutting it, right?” she asks.

Her weariness seems to lessen as she talks about what that cut means to her. “This,” she says, her hand gesturing to the coach around her, “was perfect. I have a car—it’s not running—but this was my alternative. I knew I always could get to work. Now? No.” She laughs. Come March, she’s going to have to change her work schedule from the relatively bearable afternoon-to-midnight swing shift to the much-less-bearable graveyard shift. She’ll be working the dead of night in a 24-hour Wal-Mart, and she’ll be heading home at the same time that most of the rest of the county is heading to work.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

On a recent Saturday night, driver Lee Diep lets the bus idle for a few minutes at the Chapman Avenue and State College bus stop. Diep exits, walks into a 24-hour doughnut shop, and emerges with a cup of coffee. “This one I drive only weekends,” he says, referring to the 57’s night-owl run. “But starting today, I’ll drive every day.” He sleeps during the day, he says, and doesn’t mind driving at night. In fact, he prefers it. “No traffic,” he says.

The bus remains empty until it hits La Palma Avenue in Anaheim. The door at the front of the coach opens and a woman stomps on. A gaudy sweater pulled over a sundress, with a pink-camouflage-patterned beanie covering the top of her shaved head, she hauls two enormous bags, including one vinyl tote emblazoned with a picture of the Last Supper. She doesn’t stop at the farebox, instead racing down the cabin to a seat and shouting about her feet being cold.

“This bus is so quiet,” Diep says to her, “till you get on it.”

Behind her, a man boards. Cheap plastic headphones on his ears, white hair sticking out from under a Marine Corps baseball cap, he pays the fare for himself and the woman, and then slowly makes his way down the bus, groaning with each step and dragging a rolling suitcase patterned with fuchsia and green stripes. Once he’s situated, he puts his arm around the woman, and they kiss. “This is my wife, Xavier,” he says. “I’m Alvin Smith, like the presidential candidate.”

Smith says he’s a writer. His books, he says, include self-help tomes about success and one volume of poetry about each of America’s presidents (he can recite the one about Ronald Reagan from memory). He and his wife were trying to get somewhere in Newport Beach, but they missed a bus and will be too late for wherever they need to get to by now, he says. Upon hearing the night buses are being cut, he shakes his head sadly. “A few years ago, they [the OCTA drivers] were on strike,” he offers. “That hurt a lot of people.”

At the front of the bus, Diep drives silently. Next to Smith, Xavier snores. He wakes her up at State College and Katella to get off. He doesn’t say where they’re going.

skornhaber@ocweekly.com

Click here for a slideshow of more photos. And for Keith May’s essay about his adventures on the night-owl lines, click here.

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