An Orange County Transportation Authority bus in Santa Ana. (Photo credit: OCTA)

Emphasizing the public transit dependence of Santa Ana’s heavily working-class and Latino population, the City Council Tuesday night officially opposed plans by the Orange County Transportation Authority to cut two bus routes in the city.

The county’s main bus system has been plagued by steep ridership declines that began in 2008, at the start of the Great Recession, but have persisted even in recent years. In total, the system has lost 30 percent of its riders, a figure that represents 20 million people.

In response to the ridership declines, the Transportation Authority plans to cut lines around the county and reallocate resources to increase the frequency on other, better performing routes. Transportation Authority officials say their riders are demanding more frequency, and they expect the improvements to increase ridership by 1.6 million over three years.

But there are casualties in the new plan. Among them are route 51, which runs along Flower Street from Santa Ana-Costa Mesa, and route 145, which runs from the city’s downtown to South Coast Plaza. In total, these routes ferried 27,819 people last November.

Transportation Authority officials emphasize that the changes are a reallocation plan, so, overall, Santa Ana won’t be losing bus service. Instead, the resources cut will be used to increase frequency on six other routes and the addition of a Bravo! Express route that runs along Seventeenth Street.

The two routes planned for elimination also have parallel routes that riders can access, according to Transportation Authority officials.

“This is a net zero in terms of the overall bus system,” Transportation Authority Deputy CEO Ken Phipps told the council.

But city officials see it differently. The “parallel routes” means “at minimum, a half-mile walk for riders, numerous transfers and increased wait time between transfers to arrive at the same location,” according to a city staff report. The report also points out that, “if the two lines are eliminated, it would preclude easy access to the anticipated OC Streetcar, which in turn limits regional access.”

The OC Streetcar is a planned, 4.1-mile light rail system running from the city’s downtown to its train station and then up to Westminster and Harbor in Garden Grove. It’s expected to be built and operational by 2019.

The now open disagreement between city and Transportation Authority officials shows that relations between the two agencies have become strained.

Transportation Authority CEO Darrell Johnson was miffed enough by the staff report to write an email to City Manager David Cavazos. In the email, Johnson disagrees with the staff report’s conclusions and says it only focuses on the negative impacts of the reallocation.

“Perhaps what is most concerning is the suggestion that OCTA has not been collaborative,” Johnson’s email reads. “I don’t agree with that conclusion and I would hope our partnership with the city to date on numerous projects, coupled with the OCTA Board’s significant investment in transit in Santa Ana, has proven our collaboration.”

And according to Johnson’s email, one solution to concerns over the proposed route cuts is for the city to start its own bus system. The Transportation Authority has a special pot of money under Measure M2, the countywide half-percent sales tax that funds transportation improvements, specifically for that purpose. City officials can fund 90 percent of the routes with Measure M2 under that program.

“I have been advised that city staff has not appeared interested,” in the program, Johnson wrote in his email.

Council members say they were surprised by the plans to make cuts – which Transportation Authority leaders are set to approve in February – and said that given how much the system relies on Santa Ana riders, they should have been approached sooner.

“I think what we’re concerned with is there’s going to be reduction of service in Santa Ana…. in order to shift service to other parts of the county,” Councilman Vincent Sarmiento told Transportation Authority officials. “We don’t believe you should cure that problem, or try to remedy that problem on the backs of our residents.”

Transportation Authority officials countered by saying that 80 percent of Santa Ana commuters take the bus to work in some other part of the county. They say if the system’s ridership declines aren’t reversed, then much more significant cuts will be made that will be far worse for the city’s working poor.

Council members certainly don’t disagree with the potential impacts of future cuts, but feel that the Transportation Authority hasn’t done enough to get a clear understanding of how Santa Ana riders use the bus system.

“The system is dependent on Santa Ana,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Mayor Miguel Pulido’s remarks were exceptions to the council’s largely critical stance. He said countywide there are going to be cuts and that routes in some places, particularly South Orange County, are going to be “wiped out.” He says the reorganization for Santa Ana is a net positive, though he still opposed the cuts.

“Right now I think we’re big winners,” Pulido said. “If we want to see something other than what’s being proposed, we can’t just say no, no, no.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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