Photo by Jack GouldIf you're looking for an Orange County moment, consider this one: public transit activist Jane Reifer is preparing for a meeting of Rail Advocates of Orange County at the Irvine Transportation Center. She's tacking up signs directing attendees to the station conference room.
"This is probably going to be a dinky meeting," she warns. "Our chair[person] is out of town. But some people might arrive late. Normally we get 10, 15 people."
Tonight she gets three—herself, member Roy Shahbazian and me.
Reifer is a small woman with frizzy brown hair and bright eyes. She works as a clutter consultant, helping clients countywide organize the stuff that fills their homes and offices. She doesn't own a car, doesn't even know how to drive one. She lives in Fullerton, close to the train station.
Reifer says she spends less on transportation each month than if she owned a car. She takes the bus to see her clients, but sometimes she'll take Metrolink trains, cabs or a combination of all three.
Of course, when she actually gets to the clients, they usually ask her where she parked. Her response—a sheepish "I took the bus"—usually brings quizzical and bemused looks.
"People see us as from another planet," Reifer says of Rail Advocates. "There is a total lack of transit culture in Orange County. But I think people would give up their cars if they knew how, if someone close to them gave up their car."
A bus- and rail-rider advocate for years, Reifer infuriated the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) a year ago when she campaigned against "straightlining"—an ostensible rationalization of bus lines that ran buses straight down major roads but ended service for thousands of mostly low-income riders. Agency director Art Leahy, a former bus driver himself, rolled back some of the straightlining changes—and then hired Reifer as a bus-rider ombudsman. Her contract runs through the end of this summer.
With just two members and an observer at this meeting, Rail Advocates nevertheless discuss business as usual. They talk banners and lobbying and OCTA's campaign to award the "billionth bus rider" with a lifetime bus pass, a year's supply of groceries and other goodies.
"What the person would really like is probably a new car," Reifer observes sadly.
At 7 p.m., an hour into the meeting, member and Irvine resident Phil Weinreich arrives. He came by bus but had to walk the last few blocks: the buses don't come into the train station.
"That's because of straightlining," says Reifer, explaining that buses don't deviate from the main roads.
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Weinreich has more bad news. "People in Irvine are being told CenterLine [the proposed light-rail system] will be as loud as the Chicago L," says Weinreich. "That's not even close to being true." Then he answers a cell phone call from his wife. "I'd take it outside, but no one's here yet," he says.
"Yet?" says Reifer quietly.
The meeting is supposed to go until 8 p.m., but Reifer and Shahbazian have to catch the 7:37 Metrolink to Fullerton. The business of advocating Orange County light rail will have to continue next month.
Rail Advocates meets next at the Santa Ana train station on June 5. For more information, call (866) 476-2282, ext. 4.