A revised plan by the Orange County Transportation Authority to cut a number of low-performing bus routes and increase service along busy routes countywide will roll out later this year, after receiving unanimous approval by board members Monday.

The new plan includes 14 major changes to the original proposal, including the preservation of some routes and new accommodations for disabled riders, after dozens of bus riders, many who are dependent on the system as their only transportation, showed up to previous board meetings to protest the planned cuts.

In general, the changes would cut a number of routes with low ridership in south Orange County and use those funds toward improving bus frequency and service along busier routes in the more densely populated central county.

It’s part of the Transportation Authority’s attempts to reverse a trend of declining bus ridership — which has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 2008 — the worst decline in Southern California.

A number of routes that were originally slated for elimination will be preserved, such as routes 21 (Valley View Street/Bolsa Chica Road); route 30 (Orangethorpe Avenue); route 76 (Talbert Avenue/MacArthur Boulevard); route 87 (Alicia Parkway) and route 178 (Adams Avenue/Birch Street/Campus Drive). 

Routes 51 (Bristol St) and 145 (Flower St/Raitt St/Greenville St/Fairview St) in Santa Ana will still be eliminated, but after the opposition of the Santa Ana City Council, local school officials and many residents, the Transportation Authority opted to create a Route 150 circulator bus that will provide service to that area on weekdays.

The changes also address concerns among certain disabled riders who would see the elimination of their nearest fixed bus route.

In order to the Transportation Authority’s ACCESS service, which picks up registered disabled riders from their homes by reservation, riders must live within three quarters of a mile of an existing route. For those whose closest route will be eliminated under the plan, officials had recommended they use a taxi service to get dropped off at a location where the ACCESS service can pick them up.

Many disabled riders who live on a fixed income said the extra cost of a taxi ride — $3.60 per ride for up to five miles — would not be feasible.

The Transportation Authority has instead proposed an 18-month pilot program that would eliminate the cost for a taxi for disabled riders whose regular route will be eliminated. They are also proposing extending the hours the taxi service is available beyond the current daily schedule of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“I would like to thank the board and OCTA staff for listening to your public. This is an ongoing issue …we want to be part of the solution,” said Janice White of the Regional Center OC, which advocates for people with developmental disabilities.

Still, there are several lines that will be eliminated entirely. A few bus riders commented at the meeting that, while they were thankful for the lines that were taken off the chopping block, the new plan would still make traveling more difficult for many people.

“I use eleven buses, two of which you have eliminated…I’m thankful you’re keeping the 76, which I ride two nights a week,” said Martha Flynn of Huntington Beach.

Denise Hill of Aliso Viejo noted that the service cuts would eliminate several transportation options for the disabled and elderly where she lives, and only serve to discourage bus ridership.

“The routes in my area that will be eliminated are he 82, 85, 187, 191 and 193,” said Denise Hill of Aliso Viejo. “That’s a huge area. And I know you’re focused on increasing ridership…[but] I think it’s setting a bad example for young people that there’s no real good public transit in South County.”

The Coastline Community College District also raised concerns about the elimination of routes 172 and 173, which run by Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. A third route, bus 178, that serves the college was also scheduled for elimination, although staff withdrew that recommendation.

Chelsea Vongehr of Townsend Public Affairs, which represents the district, claimed that 600 riders would be displaced by the bus cuts. According to Vongehr, the issue came to the attention of the college after a student took a video of bus filled with community college students on Route 178.

Letitia Clark, a spokeswoman for the Coastline Community College District, noted that those numbers are based on a broader survey of students who take public transportation to school. The survey included about 1,200 students or 5 percent of the student body, Clark said.

Transportation Authority staff, however, claim the number of impacted riders is much smaller — closer to 20 boardings a day on route 173 and 77 boardings on route 178, according to farebox numbers for those routes. Route 172 does not stop directly at the college.

Route 172 averages 226 boardings on weekdays, compared to 33 boardings on route 173, and 553 boardings on route 178, according to spokesman Joel Zlotnik.

But Vongehr noted that other projects planned by the community college are likely to increase bus ridership to and from the college, such as a recycling center and planetarium, that would be open to the public starting in 2017 and 2018, respectively. There are also plans for student dorms.

Transportation Authority CEO Darrell Johnson suggested they consider the possibility of those new riders “when the demand shows up.”

Transportation Authority officials are also pushing cities, especially those that will see local bus routes eliminate, to fill the gap in transportation by applying for Project V, an initiative funded by Measure M, a countywide, half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. Project V would provide up to $550,000 per year to fund community circulator bus projects.

So far, 18 cities have expressed some interest in applying for the funding, according to Zlotnik. Applications are due Feb. 29.

The proposed service changes will be implemented starting in June and again in October.

The final bus plan could still be altered, depending on what applications the Transportation Authority receives for Project V.

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

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