Plans to Cut Santa Ana Bus Routes Draw Fire

Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

An Orange County Transportation Authority bus in Santa Ana.

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.

Click here to view all the proposed bus route changes.

A map of the proposed changes to the bus system countywide. Boarding is densest in Santa Ana. Click to enlarge.

A map of the proposed changes to the bus system countywide. Boarding is densest in Santa Ana. Click to enlarge.

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.

Contact Thy Vo at or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Because, seriously, nothing is smarter than cutting bus routes into a city you are going to set up a homeless program in, right? [/sarcasm]


  • LFOldTimer

    I talked to somebody the other day who takes the bus from Laguna Niguel to Laguna Beach to get to work. 2 hours one way (4 hours round trip). A job would have to pay top dollar for me to tolerate that abuse. If it were me I’d ride a bicycle and get there is less than half the time. If you don’t own a car or can’t drive a car for some reason in the OC – you’re screwed.

    • Jacki Livingston

      I used to commute daily from Corona to the OC, for work. Bus, train, train, bus, then reverse to come home. Up to five hours a day. Yeah…so much fun.

    • cynthia curran

      It depends if its harbor Blvd, 43. LS and LN are in the areas with a lot less people that take the bus unless they have a disability or can’t afford a car. The reason why they would reduce in Santa Ana is some of those disabled in South County complain. I use to take the bus back in the 1990s when it was worst than today but it didn’t take me 2 hours more like 30 minutes since I lived in Fountain Valley and worked on first street in Santa Ana. Really, OCTA should have a deal with uber with the reduce routes to help with the budget problems, ubt alas they didn’t think of that. Plus BMW is starting a shuttle service in south County. OCTA should contract BMW for some shuttle service to the cut off routes or in Santa Ana with the Taxi’s since Santa Ana always has a lot of Taxi’s.

      • LFOldTimer

        Striking deals with Uber or BMW would help those who need transportation – but wouldn’t help OCTA. Therefore, the evaluation of such partnerships or a trial run would never happen.

  • Madeleine Spencer

    Excellent that Mr. Bacerra was able to educate so many of us and in such a short time about what is going on at OCTA. This is really problematic and in a city with no bus riders union to be our watchdog and fight these issues. We continue in the OC to rob Peter to pay Paul when what we need more vision and engagement of those most effected. If only the government would understand that the problems and the solutions are very close together like a two sided coin. And if they are unable to see them, then they should be humble enough to call on another set of eyes to help them out. Those eyes are the ones who actually must deal with the faulty systems that are put in place. Help us to help you come up with better and more sustainable solutions addressing the problems we are facing with transportation in our cities. We have the answers, but the question is whether our civic leaders will ask and try to understand the meaning of vision and collaboration so that they spend our tax paying dollars in the most utilitarian manner.

  • LFOldTimer

    I pity the person in the OC who cannot afford a car and all the things that go along with it, or the person who is unable to drive a car for one reason or another. We have the worst public transportation system imaginable. The waste is enormous. Way too many chiefs with six-figure salaries. It’s too late to build a real public transportation system. That should have been done decades ago. Today it would be impossible to finance. Instead of adding to a substandard public transportation system they’re subtracting. Go figure. I guess they have to figure out a way to pay all the chiefs and add more. Once again, the user gets screwed.

    • cynthia curran

      What they need is the less bus service in South County would some alternative transportation for the disabled in South County. HB it was the ones that go to LA, they could cut that out. OC would have a really good service if it shift to the central cities and did some contracts with Uber, or the Taxi companies to make up for the less buses. I give my imput to have all buses in low ridership every hour and run less hours. Go to only one bravo instead of two. Tucson Arizona where I now live concentrates on the poorer sections or main streets for bus service.