‘This Is My Only Transportation.’ Residents Speak Out Against Bus Route Cuts

There have been times when Rosemary Pfeiffer, a wheelchair-bound senior from Rancho Santa Margarita, has had to wait all night for an Orange County Transportation Authority bus to take her home.

She depends on the county’s bus system to buy groceries and make it to doctor’s appointments as far as Los Angeles. And at times she has missed the last bus of the evening, which means she has to wait in the street until the 6 a.m. bus comes.

“This is my only transportation. Without it, I cannot function,” Pfeiffer told the Transportation Authority board at a packed hearing Monday morning, where board members heard from dozens of riders who will be impacted by proposed bus service cuts.

The cuts are part of a countywide overhaul that would eliminate routes with the lowest ridership and shift resources toward increasing bus service in denser parts of the county.

Transportation Authority officials are hoping the new plan will be more efficient and undo some of the damage done by route cuts made between 2010 and 2012, which contributed to a drop of nearly 20 million boardings, or 30 percent of its total ridership, since 2008.

The drop in ridership in Orange County is significantly worse than in other Southern California counties during the same time period. Los Angeles and San Bernardino saw 11 percent and 3 percent drops, respectively, while San Diego and Riverside saw increases of 6 and 18 percent.

Much of Orange County’s drop can be attributed to a decision by Transportation Authority officials after the Great Recession to cut services equally based on geography, rather than giving priority to parts of the county where higher percentages of people depend on bus service.

The new proposal calls for cutting routes, mainly concentrated in south county, that have relatively few riders, while preserving and adding service to higher density routes in central county.

Although some say the plan will help solve the ridership problem, many riders are worried the changes will only add more barriers for people whose livelihoods depend on any one of the bus routes slated for elimination.

Livelihoods in the Balance

Gregory Reed of Laguna Niguel is legally blind and hearing impaired. In addition to relying on public buses for his own needs, he travels by bus to take care of his mother in Fullerton.

“With her eyes and my hands we get her to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store,” Reed said.

Several women who commute from Santa Ana to south Orange County to clean houses, who spoke to the Board in Spanish through a translator, said the proposed route cuts to south county would eliminate their only way to travel to work.

“I need the 188, 85, 82, 89, 87, 72 and 177,” said Natalia Chrisos Tomo of Santa Ana, rattling off the bus routes she takes to clean homes. “We wake up very early to get to our work. After the bus stops, we need to walk back an hour or an hour and a half to get to work.”

Among the proposed cuts that are most controversial, are two routes that service Santa Ana, the 51-Bristol and 145-Raitt-Greenville-Fairview, will be cut because more successful routes run parallel to them.

Officials with Santa Ana College and the Santa Ana City Council have opposed the cuts, noting that the 51-Bristol serves several schools, including a bus stop at Santa Ana College. They also raised concern that no public meetings about the cuts were held in Santa Ana, where a large number of bus riders are concentrated.

“Santa Ana college students juggle a lot of things…home, school, work,” said Erlinda Martinez, president of Santa Ana College. “To have a solution that says you can walk an extra half-mile is not a solution. You’ve added an additional barrier on top of a barrier that already exists.”

Many of the disabled adults and parents of disabled teenagers present were concerned about how the elimination of main routes would affect their access to the Transportation Authority’s ACCESS service, a shared ride system for the disabled that picks up passengers at their homes by reservation.

To be eligible, the individual must be unable to use regular fixed-route buses because of functional limitations caused by their disability, and must live within three-quarters of a mile from a regular bus route.

For those whose regular bus route will be eliminated, Transportation Authority officials have recommended they use another service, a same-day taxi service, to get dropped off at a location where the ACCESS service can pick them up.

Several people said, however, that the taxi service is too expensive for people living on a fixed income. The taxi service costs $3.60 a trip for up to 5 miles, after which riders pay a regular taxi fare.

According to Transportation Authority officials, the proposed changes would affect less than two percent of the total 1.4 million disabled riders they serve.

Others rely on the regular bus service for their independence or because they do not have family.

Kim Lowe moved from Anaheim to Yorba Linda to be near reliable bus access, so that her disabled daughter Chelsea and her roommate would be able to rent an apartment and live independently. Her daughter uses the bus to get to work.

“As parents it took us a very long time to get these two girls settled in an apartment that is safe and has access to service. We carefully considered where they were living…and we just moved in July,” Lowe said.

Especially for disabled people, leaving some parts of the county without any bus service is unjust, speakers said.

“Perhaps OCTA should rename itself to Central Orange County Bus Service,” said Rancho Santa Margarita resident Kat Avila.

Based on the public input from Monday’s hearing, Transportation Authority staff will make revisions to the plan. The board’s Transit Committee will meet on Feb. 11 to discuss the changes, and the plan will go the full board for a vote on Feb. 22.

If approved, the bus service changes would go into effect as soon as June.

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