As they struggle to cope with declining ridership, Orange County Transportation Authority officials are planning to cut several underperforming bus routes, and in doing so are drawing criticism from some in Santa Ana who say they are reducing bus access to one of the county's most underserved populations.
As part of a plan that officials say will improve its most heavily trafficked bus routes, the agency has proposed eliminating fifteen routes that have the lowest ridership, many which are located in South County. Several other bus lines countywide will be shortened or their routes altered.
Resources will then be dedicated to increasing bus service along higher performing routes, including the addition of two new Bravo! Express routes. One will run between Long Beach and Tustin, and another from Fullerton to Huntington Beach.
But two casualties of the Transportation Authority's effort to maximize efficiency are routes that take riders to and from Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, route 51 (Flower Street) and 145 (Raitt/Greenville/Fairview streets). The Transportation Authority considers those routes unnecessary because there are already buses that run parallel to them, and riders can connect to other lines to get where they need to go.
Yet those changes could also exacerbate overcrowding on existing bus routes and decrease overall access for Santa Ana residents, who ride buses more than any other part of the county, argues Phil Bacerra, a Santa Ana Planning Commissioner.
"Instead of taking needed transit service away from Santa Ana and giving it to areas that do not use it, OCTA should make those routes more attractive by adding service," Bacerra wrote in an email to the agency's board that has been circulating among several Santa Ana activist groups.
Fewer Bus Riders
These changes are driven by a steep drop in bus ridership. Since 2008, ridership has dropped by 20 million boardings, or 30 percent. And boardings have continued to decline, with November marking the 36th straight month of negative growth, according to a Dec. 30 Transportation Authority report, the most recent one available.
And because the agency doesn't have "reliable and long-term local, state or federal transportation dollars" to add additional routes, they can only use existing funding to make the system more efficient and effective, wrote Transportation Authority spokesman Joel Zlotnik in an email response to a reporter's questions.
"If changes aren’t made, service cuts and fare increases could be necessary systemwide and that would worsen the trend of declining ridership," said Zlotnik.
Since the recession, a reduction in state funds and declining sales tax revenues forced the Transportation Authority officials to cut services, which they did equally for bus routes countywide. The agency currently has a $300 million budget for bus operations, according to Zlotnik.
"When we cut the service back, we did it very equally geographically...but what we've seen is that may not have been the best approach," Zlotnik said. "And what we've heard from our riders is they really want more frequent service and service that gets them to go where they need to quickly."
Under the proposed changes, 92 percent of bus riders will see improvements or their service will remain the same, while 4 percent will need to use an alternative route and another 1 to 4 percent of riders will have their route eliminated, according to Transportation Authority estimates.
Bacerra argues that, rather than eliminating the Santa Ana-to-Costa Mesa routes, Transportation Authority officials should add more frequent bus service to encourage ridership and relieve overcrowding on parallel routes.
"Many buses that travel on Bristol and Main Street are overcrowded and standing room only," Bacerra said.
Zlotnik acknowledged the issues brought up by Bacerra and others, but said hard choices have to be made.
"As difficult as this is for riders who may see negative impacts, our bus system is in a downward spiral and we need to take steps to fix it or things will only get worse," Zlotnik said.
But, Bacerra said, the alternate routes that will be taking on riders from those being cut are already among the busiest countywide.
Route 57 (Bristol Street) is the system's most crowded bus line, with 298,523 boardings last November. Other high traffic routes include route 47 (Anaheim Boulevard/Fairview Street), with 199,354 boardings; and route 53 (Main Street), with 180,635 boardings.
By comparison, the two routes slated for elimination, route 51 and 145, saw 16,317 and 11,502 boardings in November, respectively. Eliminating those routes would save the agency about $2.7 million, or less than 1 percent of the overall budget.
Bacerra also criticized the Transportation Authority for not hosting any community meetings on the issue in Santa Ana and Anaheim, cities with the most bus riders. Instead, the Transportation Authority hosted four community meetings in Orange, Huntington Beach, San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Hills, cities with significantly lower ridership.
Zlotnik notes that the meeting in Orange took place at the Transportation Authority headquarters, which is right on the border of Santa Ana. Information and comment cards were also available on buses and the agency advertised countywide in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, he said.
The board will hold a public hearing on Jan. 25. Based on input received at that meeting, the plan could be revised and return to the board for a final vote in February.
If the project stays on schedule, the new bus routes will be implemented in June and October.
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