OCTA Committee Recommends Slightly Less Painful Bus Cuts–For Now

County Supervisor Patricia Bates may have said it best today: “You can't send these people off a cliff, in a bus.”

The remark came amidst some low-heat sparring between her and Tustin Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Amante at this morning's meeting of the OCTA Finance and Administration committee. They were talking, of course, about how much they should recommend that the OCTA board of directors cut bus service in response to a budget shortfall.

The recommendation that came out of the committee was to cut a lot, but not as much as once thought–unless the State Legislature keeps screwing local transportation agencies. If that happens, then, well: Bus users will be heading off that cliff.

As we mentioned yesterday, Transit Advocates of Orange County have been lobbying OCTA board members to reconsider their initial decision to cut more than 500,000 hours of bus service (there originally were 1.9 million annual service hours in the system). A reduction of 233,000 hours has already been implemented. And an additional 300,000 hours were to be cut in March 2010.

But today, OCTA staffers told committee members — who include Bates and Amante, as well as John Moorlach, Bill Campbell, Peter Buffa, Arthur Brown and Cathy Green — that they think they've found a way to halve the original additional 300,000 cuts to only 150,000.

Why the change? It partly has to do with a recent State Supreme Court action upholding a ruling saying that the State of California owed local transportation agencies millions of dollars. In light of that decision, staff says, it seems more likely that the State Legislature will restore the local transportation dollars they had diverted in the midst of the statewide budget crisis. On top of that, staff believes it can make the bus system more efficient, and recommended that OCTA shift $68 from its rail fund to its bus fund (the board has already approved doing so for a smaller amount of money that never ended up being moved).

Amante, for one, wasn't buying it.  He said he didn't want to “throw the bones on the craps table of life” to bet that the Legislature would restore OCTA's funding. Better, he said, to make drastic cuts now and restore later. It's the old pull-the-bandaid-off-quickly theory.

But Bates and Campbell argued in favor of adopting the 150,000-hour cut recommendation. If, in a year or two, the legislature hasn't restored transportation money and no alternative funding sources have been identified, then OCTA should cut the additional 150,000 hours for a total of 300,000.

That solution — cut 150,000 hours now and maybe 150,000 more later — is what the committee ended up voting to recommend.

That wasn't what Jane Reifer of the Transportation Advocates wanted. She believes that she has identified enough cost-savings, revenue-raising and money-moving measures to completely prevent any additional service cuts to the bus system.  One recommendation of hers — to use rail dollars for the bus system — was adopted by the committee today.

But there remain others she would like to see implemented. The most interesting one did get some airtime today. The committee seemed amenable to Reifer's suggestion of reclaiming OCTA bus funds that had been pledged, years ago, to the City of Santa Ana's bid to widen Bristol Street. But there are hoops to be jumped through first: Santa Ana is asking for an additional $100,000 from OCTA to complete the long-languishing project.

Reifer wasn't happy after the meeting. She knows the human cost of bus cuts: On Monday, she led about  60 people — disabled, veterans and low-income workers among them — telling the board how essential bus service was to their lives. A 150,000 hour cut on top of a 233,000 cut is devastating, she said, even if it isn't quite as bad as a 300,000 hour cut: “Would you rather lose your arms and your legs, or just your arms?”, she said. Depending on what Sacramento does, though, the legs might be gone soon too.

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