Dire Predictions Force Debate on Future of OC’s Bus System

As the Orange County Transportation Authority makes a number of major changes to its bus system in an effort to boost lagging ridership and avoid service cuts, officials received another dose of bad news earlier this month: a new forecast suggests the county’s bus system will become financially “unsustainable” over the next 20 years.

The sobering forecast has sparked a debate over the future of bus service in Orange County and whether buses will remain a viable public transportation option in the coming decades

At a Transportation Authority (OCTA) board meeting September 12, board members received a revised estimate of the sales tax revenue available to the bus system over the next 20 years, with figures falling $1 billion short of the original projections.

By the 2028-2029 fiscal year, the cost of bus system will begin to rapidly outpace incoming revenue, according to the report prepared by agency staff.

“If we keep doing things the exact same way we are doing today, eventually we’ll go negative,” said Andrew Oftelie, Executive Director of Finance and Administration at that meeting. “We do not have a cash crisis at this time, but we do have a long-term funding problem.”

(Click here to see a graph of  sales tax projections) 

OCTA previously relied on sales tax projections from a number of local universities, figures that proved to be overly rosy, said agency spokesman Eric Carpenter.

After the board voted to switch to a more conservative projection in March, the revised figures showed the agency’s share of sales tax revenue over the 20-year period dropping from $5.4 billion to $4.4 billion.

All of this comes during an era of declining bus ridership in Orange County and elsewhere. Countywide, ridership has fallen by more than 30 percent since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Meanwhile, the OCTA board approved cuts in bus service hours by 21 percent; and, in 2013 increased one-way fares from $1.50 to $2.00.

Conflicting Visions

Although officials have been reluctant to discuss further service cuts or raising fares, they acknowledge the need to address the new realities if they want to keep the program alive.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who serves on the OCTA board, said demographic changes and the way Orange County has developed are two main drivers of falling ridership.

While there’s a strong demand for buses in dense, working-class central Orange County, Nelson said it’s unlikely that others with access to a car – especially middle-income families and South Orange County residents – would ditch their cars for a public bus.

“There’s this idea that we’re going to get people on a bus when we’re not,” Nelson said. “It ain’t going to happen.”

Director Frank Ury, who is also mayor of Mission Viejo, questioned whether the agency could accurately predict how things would look so far out into the future.

“We’re going to be making decisions in 2017 for the possibility that in 2027 we may have a problem?” Ury said. “I’m not going to vote on any cuts this year…I do not believe we are at the point where I want to make decisions.”

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait has been the most outspoken director in favor of increasing the bus system’s funding. He argues service cuts and fare increases feed into a vicious cycle that causes ridership to dip further, and that the agency could reverse falling ridership by making the service more attractive to riders.

“What would you expect ridership to do? Even though it may not seem like much, when 62 percent of riders have a household income of less than $20,000 a year, and 32 percent have a household income of less than 10,000 a year, price is everything,” Tait said.

Tait has also been a critic of streetcar proposals, including a planned 4.1-mile streetcar route that would take riders from Santa Ana’s train station, through downtown and end at a new transit hub in Garden Grove. The project is estimated to cost $300 million, almost the entire annual budget of the bus system.

Tait argues that the long-term cost of the streetcar will come at the expense of poor, transit-dependent people, because the first expense to be cut during a recession is service.

“Those fixed costs you have to pay on the streetcar bonds, when your revenue drops…you could easily cut bus service but you can’t cut bond payments on a rail system,” said Tait. “So the service is always the first to be cut, and that hurts the poor families who need it.”

The Politics of Transit Spending

Brian Taylor, who heads the UCLA Center for Regional Policy Studies, says what’s playing out Orange County is a familiar battle.

There is far more political incentive, he says, to build new projects rather than improving existing ones, meaning there’s far greater willingness to spend money on new projects rather than equipment and maintenance.

“It’s very hard to have a press event and cut a ribbon about more bus services, but it’s easy to do one in front of the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC),” Taylor said, referring to the massive new transit center in Anaheim that has attracted far fewer train riders than officials originally predicted.

“We’re much better at building new projects than maintaining what we have.”

Time, money, risk and uncertainty are the main factors that riders weigh when deciding how they will make a trip, Taylor said. Most of those who leave the bus system do so because, in spite of financial difficulties, a car is faster and more reliable.

The result is, as Nelson said, most riders are people who ride the bus because they are too young or old to drive, are disabled, or can’t afford a car.

However, Taylor disagrees with the conclusion that demographic changes and stigma about buses are to blame for falling ridership. And, he said, it’s dangerous to simply assume that pivoting away from a bus service to, for example, a new rail system would be a panacea.

“New rail investments tend to work well when they solve a problem and are integrated into an existing network,” Taylor said. “But to say, ‘we can’t get any ridership, maybe if we run a rail out, we’ll get it,’ that’s when you’ll get problems.”

If the bus system worked, more people would ride the bus, he said.

“In places around the world where congestion is heavy and subways whisk you around – there’s no stigma. There’s places…where they have bus systems that are structured to bypass traffic,” said Taylor. “

He points to the city of Houston, where, like Orange County, ridership dropped by more than a third over the past decade.

Infamous for its sprawl and lack of a zoning code, while the city of Houston has changed substantially over the last few decades – developing new neighborhoods and new business centers – its bus system had not.

So in 2015, transportation officials overhauled the bus system almost overnight, changing nearly every bus route, which added $10 million to the annual budget. About a year after the overhaul, Houston Metro has seen a 6.8-percent increase in ridership on both bus and light rail, and the agency is aiming for a 20-percent increase within two years.

“[The changes made] the system legible to people,” Taylor said, adding that the question isn’t whether riders would rather ride a vehicle with rubber or steel wheels. “What they care is how quick, how fast and how safe is it is relative to the alternatives,” he said.

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