Orange County Transit Authority Set to Approve $1.3-Billion Budget

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Bolstered by increasing sales tax and bus fare revenue, Orange County transportation officials are scheduled June 10 to adopt a new $1.3-billion budget that calls for a 4-percent boost in bus service.

The rosier picture emerges after several difficult years during the global economic recession, according to officials at the Orange County Transportation Authority.

“We’ve had four years of pretty tough budgets,” forcing cuts to bus service, infrastructure improvements and dipping into reserves in the “tens of millions” of dollars, Finance Director Andy Oftelie said this week.

“It was a much better environment this year,” Oftelie added, enabling the agency to invest much of the new revenue back into services.

Overall spending at the agency — which also funds Metrolink trains, freeway and street upgrades, shuttles and other transit projects — is set to rise by $186 million or 17 percent compared with the current year.

Yet even with next year’s addition of 61,000 bus service hours, OCTA is still making up for the cut of about 383,000 hours during the recession. “We’ve got a long ways to go,” said Oftelie.

Members of the public will have a chance to comment on the budget during next week’s OCTA board of directors meeting, when directors are set to discuss the budget and approve it. Directors may make changes to the budget based on their discussion and public input.

(Click here to download OCTA’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget.)

The meeting starts June 10 at 9 a.m. at OCTA headquarters in Orange.

Residents can also contact the OCTA directors ahead of the meeting.

About half of the new bus service hours are set for a new rapid transit bus program on Harbor Boulevard that launches next week.

The route from the Fullerton train station to MacArthur Boulevard in Costa Mesa usually makes 52 stops, but officials said the new Bravo service will instead stop only 15 times.

The other half of the service hours are planned for adding buses to existing routes to improve on-time performance and reduce overcrowding. In cases where buses are full, they must skip stops, even if passengers are waiting there.

OCTA’s data show that while the routes it operates exceeded on-time standards with 93 percent of bus departures no more than five minutes late, its outsourced bus service were below the standards.

That service, which is provided in South County by MV Transportation, was on time at 84 percent of stops as of a year ago, according to OCTA. That’s below the agency’s 92-percent standard for contracted routes.

A staff report attributes the contractor’s lower performance to a rise in ridership and the handling of peak-time routes, which generate more late buses.

OCTA plans ultimately to outsource 30 percent of its routes, up from 25 percent at the end of the next fiscal year.

Beyond bus service, OCTA is also set to spend hundreds of millions on major infrastructure projects such as freeway upgrades, bridges and road improvements.

One major effort is OC Bridges, which routes car and pedestrian traffic away from train tracks, either by raising the road above the tracks or moving the road below them. About $149 million is budgeted for that program this coming year.

Within the $1.3-billion total budget, here’s how the money is allocated:

  • $400 million for buses — about $280 million in operating costs.
  • $322 million for streets and roads, including $1.5 million for bikeways.
  • $232 million for trains — $31 million in operating costs and $201 million for capital infrastructure.
  • $170 million for freeway upgrades.

The agency also expects to bring in a $13.5-million surplus from operating the Route 91 express toll lanes. That’s down 8 percent from last year.

OCTA officials said they’ll save millions by switching vendors for ACCESS, their federally mandated shuttle service for disabled residents.

Through the contractor shift for ACCESS, the agency projects savings of about $46 million over the next eight years. Officials say that money is set to be invested in 99 replacement vehicles, software improvements that call customers in advance of their pick ups and additional ACCESS service.

As part of an ongoing policy, the new budget calls for cutting 10 maintenance positions through attrition and replacing them with outsourced workers. The agency also plans to add 14 bus drivers to handle the new bus services.

Overall, OCTA has budgeted for 1,522 employees next year, though not all of those positions will be filled.

Officials also said they don’t expect OCTA to assume extra costs due to recent financial problems at Metrolink, but they can’t be certain whether Metrolink is inflating the costs they pass on to OCTA.

An internal review found that Metrolink’s restricted accounts appear to be underfunded by $66 million.

“It raised a lot of issues on financial management there,” said Oftelie, who agreed that Metrolink staff had been providing incorrect figures for its restricted fund. “They definitely need some work.”

Officials said OCTA buses transported 4.3 million passengers in April. The busiest routes that month were:

  • Route 57 — Bristol Street through Costa Mesa and Santa Ana and State College Boulevard through Orange, Anaheim, Fullerton and Brea — 358,000 boardings.
  • Route 43 — Harbor Boulevard through Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Fullerton — 335,000 boardings.
  • Route 60 — Westminster Boulevard through Seal Beach and Westminster; Westminster Avenue through Garden Grove; and 17th Street through Santa Ana and Tustin — 293,000 boardings.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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