The Orange County Grand Jury today chastised county, state and federal officials for allowing local bus transportation to seriously deteriorate while they promoted expensive buildings, like the planned rail station in Anaheim, and a statewide high-speed rail system.
The report, titled “A Short Ride on The Bus: OCTA’s Mission Imperiled,” praised the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) for trying to maintain countywide bus service in the face of a 20 percent drop in income due to state funding cuts and general financial losses caused by the Great Recession.
To keep the buses running, OCTA had to increase fares and cut service.
“Yet,” said the report, “while OCTA’s managers and staff scramble to find enough money to provide a decent level of service for their riders, federal and local dollars are being awarded to transit-related projects whose needs appear less urgent than those of the local bus system.”
It cited the $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funds awarded this winter to the state High Speed Rail Authority as an example of federal funds that could have been allocated in ways to benefit bus travel.
High-speed rail, said the report, is “a transportation notion that many agree is at least a decade or more away from carrying its first passenger” while Orange County workers, students and those who are unable to drive need bus service now.
It said the average household income of an Orange County bus rider is $31,800 and 70 percent of the riders don’t have a car. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for Orange County in 2008, the latest year available, was $74,862. Statewide, it was $61,017.
The report pointed to Anaheim’s planned “cathedral-like” $143 million transportation center as another project that is actively being pursued at a time when money is badly needed for basic bus service.
Anaheim’s station is supposed to be a regional hub for Metrolink commuter trains, buses, taxis, bicycles and high-speed rail. It is financed with funds from a 2006 ballot initiative approved by Orange County voters for transit projects.
“It is not widely known that Measure M funds, derived from a half-cent sales tax that Orange County voters have twice approved, cannot be used for bus operations,” said the report. Besides, it added, even though the station will be in Anaheim, “the host city isn’t funding.”
The report recommended OCTA look for ways to amend Measure M to allocate money for bus transportation and re-examine its decision to financially support the Anaheim station.
OCTA board members also should urge Orange County’s congressional delegation to lobby for legislative modification of the $2.25 billion award of federal stimulus funds to the high-speed rail project, the report said.
Joel Zlotnik, spokesman for OCTA said the grand jury report “accurately identifies the funding challenges” facing the bus system, but because of the way the Measure M ballot initiative was written, the agency can’t change the way the money is spent.
But he said the board believes there is no need for further fare increases and cuts in service, at least for another year. He said work done by OCTA to keep the buses running during the current economic crisis has been successful and is the reason no more reductions are needed now.
— TRACY WOOD