OCTA Proposes Fare Changes to Cope With Declining Bus Ridership

As part of an effort to overhaul its struggling bus system, the county’s transportation agency is considering a new fee structure that would charge riders based on how far they travel instead of the current flat fee across bus routes countywide.

The proposed fare changes, which were unveiled at the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) board meeting Monday and will be the subject of a public hearing on September 26th, would have the greatest effect on disabled riders who ride long distances on the bus.

Under the proposed plan, OCTA would double the price paid by disabled riders who use a home pick-up bus service to travel from one end of the county to the other, and also increase fares for express buses that travel within and outside of the county. Meanwhile, the cost of day passes would be reduced by a dollar for six a period of months.

OCTA has lost riders faster than any other Southern California transportation agency, with ridership falling by more than 30 percent since 2008.

The number of buses operating at peak hours went from 541 in 2008 to 428 in 2013, a 21 percent decrease, according to data from the National Transit Database. Over that same period, hours of service were cut by 21 percent.

The Transportation Authority also increased fares by 50 cents, from $1.50 to $2.00 a ride, in 2013.

Now officials are trying to rebuild their ridership base, by shifting service away from low-performing bus routes toward improving service along more popular routes.

One of those steps included commissioning a fare study, which was conducted by ch2m, a Los Angeles-based consulting company, and released in March.

One of the conclusions of the consultant report was that OCTA’s fare structure is simple compared to its peers – one price for local buses and each of the two express bus services – but fails to account for differences in how far riders travel.

For example, disabled individuals who use ACCESS, a bus service that picks up riders at their homes by appointment, currently pay a flat fee of $3.60, to use the service.

The ACCESS service is mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and limits the fare to twice the cost of a comparable fixed-route trip. The Transportation Authority subsidizes the remaining cost, according to a staff report.

While the average cost of an ACCESS trip is $43, it jumps to more than $80 when riders use the service to travel from one end of the county to another, according to the staff report.

San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties all use zone-based fares for their transit services for the disabled.

Only about 3 percent of ACCESS riders use the service for the countywide trips.

Here is a rundown of the staff recommendations:

  • Decrease price of day passes from $5.00 to $4.00 for a promotional period of six months
  • Eliminate five- and seven-day passes, which account for less than 1 percent of pass usage
  • Re-brand express routes within the county as “OC Express” routes and increase fares from $2.00 to $4.00. This would affect routes 206, 211, 212, 213 and 216.
  • Re-brand express routes that take riders outside of Orange County to “Express” routes and increase fares from $6.00 to $7.00
  • Divide the county into three zones (north, central and south) and increase fares for disabled riders using the ACCESS service who travel across all three zones, from $3.60 to $7.20.

The plan also includes a six-month trial period where the price of one-day bus passes will be reduced from $5 to $4. Officials estimate the reduction will increase ridership by 600,000 boardings during the promotional period, but result in a loss of $1.1 million in revenue from fares.

They plan to make up that funding gap with grant money from a state cap and trade program, and hope the experiment will give them a better sense of how lowering the price of a bus trip will affect ridership.

“This is the first time we’ve lowered a fare, so this is new – we’ll have to see how this interacts,” said Sean Murdock, director of finance and administration, at Monday’s meeting. The board voted unanimously for the fare reduction plan.

However, some board members disagree with staff’s recommendation to increase fares.

Director Tom Tait, who is also the mayor of Anaheim, believes price is one of the major factors in whether riders choose to take public transit. He said many riders with low or fixed incomes will not have the money to absorb increased costs, much less increase their use of public transportation.

“That’s who ride your buses – people who have no money. They’re the same people who line up at food pantries,” said Tait. “After they pay rent, and utilities, they have money for food and transit.”

“We’ve increased the price sixty percent from 2007…and our ridership has dropped 38 million,” Tait added.

Director Greg Winterbottom disagreed with Tait, citing a July study by the advocacy group TransitCenter which found riders value frequency and reliability of service, as well as short travel times, when making the decision to use public transportation.

“It’s fast and frequent service and walkable neighborhoods – not price, sorry Tom – that matters,” said Winterbottom.

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