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.

  • Ed Romero

    After being rear-ended and my Truck in repair, I had to take the OCTA Buses. Something has to be done about people getting on the Bus with BAGS AND BAGS of their personal things. I know they also have to get to their destination, but when you can walk pass them because their BAGS are blocking your passage, there are seats in the back but you can’t get to them.

  • Philmore

    Clicking on the “conclusions of consultant report” link, I got a document titled, “Update on the 91 Express Lanes Pavement Rehabilitation and Variable Message Signs Replacement Project” not appearing to contain any bus fare structure info.
    I was seeking clarification to reconcile the estimated $1.1 M loss estimated for gaining 600,000 riders with a day pass $1.00 fare reduction. The ch2m link revealed a 23 % overall farebox cost recovery and 54.87 M (?annual?) fares, but Table 7-1 (pg 43) showed a $2.2 M loss from day pass price reduction. I think this search is producing diminishing returns.

    • David Zenger

      These reports are not supposed to make sense or even be consistent or even accurate. They are only supposed to be expensive.

  • Philmore

    “Beatings will continue until morale improves” – Supposedly satirical office sign.
    “Fare increases will continue until ridership improves” – Supposedly serious OCTA policy.
    Which one is the joke ?

  • What a complete and utter joke. Jacking up fares and then cutting routes left & right as OCTA is set
    to do yet again come October (the other time was this past June) does not help its argument. OCTA mismanages
    money, cuts routes and then blames declining ridership on the
    passengers. Psssst! Hey OCTA, as someone who rides OCTA nearly daily, I can tell you that the only ppl who voluntarily take public transportation in Orange County do so because they do not have access to a personal motor vehicle due to financial circumstances. OCTA ::SUCKS:::

  • Cynthia Ward

    First of all, KUDOS to OCTA staff for trying to think outside the box and look at what obstacles are present to riding, and what triggers might be used to encourage ridership. We would all like the streets to be less crowded, and it is a hard career that is tasked with getting OC car lovers out of our beloved vehicles. Indeed, ask the OCTA board members (including Mr. Winterbottom) how often they take the bus. And in OC we have to admit we want lots of OTHER people to take public transit to free up the roads for US. Right?

    I agree with Mayor Tait that raising bus fees hits hardest those least able to absorb those fees, there are ALSO other factors involved, including the stigma that riding the bus is for poor people without other options, which is elitist snobbery at its best, and I am guilty of that sin myself. I rode the bus for years when I could not afford a car, but the minute I could afford even the most junker-clunker of a vehicle I abandoned the bus pass. What is NOT discussed, an is outside the control of OCTA, is the NUMBER ONE factor that keeps me off a bus is the condition of the BUS STOPS themselves! Since 2008, OCTA has been losing bus riders. While I would argue the cost of a bus DOES impact ridership, I guarantee the biggest shift since 2008 has been homeless people turning the bus shelters into de facto encampments for lack of anywhere else to shelter. When I was “green birding” my neighborhood one evening very recently, I stopped to visit with patrons of a bus stop, who thanked me for cleaning up, and they mentioned how the bus stop “smelled like (human liquid waste)” and sure enough, as I approached it DID. In addition, neighborhood clean-ups become a nightmare around the bus stops, as people eat their meal between jobs while waiting for the bus, and the LACK OF TRASH CANS prompts riders to dump their their trash on the sidewalk under the benches before boarding. Those meals also make the pavement around the benches sticky and questionable, and one sits there thinking “don’t think about it, and try to move around it and save the shoes” Now I know…OCTA staff told me OCTA only owns the POST with the BUS STOP symbol on it. Cities provide (or not) the shelters and maintain them (or not.) So one of the biggest obstacles to ridership is outside the control of OCTA, which must be frustrating for them. Instead of underwriting a bunch of programs to get people on busses, what about looking into grants to underwrite cleaning BUS STOPS so they are pleasant places for potential riders AND the residents who don’t ride the bus, but also associate busses with the condition of their stops and are disgusted? That might actually remove some of the stigma of busses being for the poor who have no choices, as well as improving quality of life for those who live, work, or walk around the bus shelters. Even some kind of a contest to pit cities against each other for “nicest bus stops in the County” would bring out the competitive nature of governments, and perhaps prompt them to clean up, if they knew photos were being shot and displayed of the bus stops THEY OWN. Just thinking outside the box, from someone without a shred of power to make anything happen but given a voice on a comment section and using it. Keep up the good work, OCTA staff, you are on the right track to look at anything but the same old programs that have not been working, but I wonder if the answer is NOT ON the busses at all?

    • LMAO – clearly you live in la-la land and have obviously never ridden OCTA bus regularly. BTW, taking an express route to an Angel’s game or the fair does not count. Also, did you get paid to shill for OCTA or are you doing it for free?