OCTA Considers Faster Bus Service or Streetcar for Heavily-Used North and Central County Routes

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

An Orange County Transit Authority bus drops off passengers at a bus stop on Bristol Street, in front of Santa Ana College, in Santa Ana on Friday, September 1, 2017.

The Orange County Transportation Authority’s (OCTA) plans for the future could give public transportation in the county’s north and central areas a boost, including the possibility of two streetcar routes along north Harbor Boulevard and Westminster Avenue.

As part of the agency’s plan for the public transportation system over the next few decades, known as the Transit Master Plan, OCTA has identified 11 heavily-used corridors that are candidates for faster bus service or a new light rail line.

Click to view a larger map of the OCTA routes being considered for major improvements.

Two of those corridors – north Harbor Boulevard between Fullerton and Garden Grove, as well as a 17th Street/Westminster Avenue route that would connect Westminster to the University of California, Irvine – are being recommended by staff as contenders for a potential streetcar line or rapid bus service.

Both of those lines have the potential to connect to a streetcar project in Santa Ana, dubbed the OC Streetcar, which received $50 million from the federal government earlier this year to get it started.

Nearly all of the routes being proposed for improvements by OCTA are concentrated in north and central Orange County.

Read the full report here. 

A New Kind of Bus Service

One type of bus service that could be introduced along the 11 corridors is known by planners as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Its features include a dedicated bus lane, high frequency service, and allowing passengers to buy tickets before they board the bus to cut down on wait times.

Bus Rapid Transit often is hailed as a transit option that’s faster than traditional bus service with some of the features of light rail, but without the expensive infrastructure.

Another possibility is what OCTA calls rapid bus, which has some but not all of the features of bus rapid transit. Rapid bus, at the least, usually has fewer stops along the route, meaning the bus travels further between stops.

The Transit Master Plan calls for seven improved bus lines along South Harbor Boulevard; State College/Bristol Street; Beach Boulevard; Main Street between Orange and Santa Ana; Chapman Ave., La Palma/Lincoln; and Bolsa/McFadden Ave. Full maps of each route are available in the full report. 

OCTA already runs express buses with limited stops along two of the county’s busiest routes, known as the Bravo! Service. One Bravo! line runs down Harbor Boulevard from Fullerton to Costa Mesa, and another runs from Long Beach to Santa Ana.

The Transit Master Plan also is calling for two freeway-based Bus Rapid Transit lines. One route would take the I-5 freeway from the Fullerton Park-and-Ride to the Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel station and the second would take the SR-55 freeway from the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center to Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.

Opposition to a Streetcar

The Fullerton-to-Garden Grove streetcar option along Harbor Boulevard rankled board member Tom Tait, the mayor of Anaheim, who led a 6-1 vote in January by the Anaheim City Council to oppose any plans for a streetcar down Harbor Boulevard.

Tait opposed a previous proposal in Anaheim for a 3.2 mile, $300 million streetcar between the city’s transit hub, ARTIC, and its resort district, arguing the project is needlessly expensive, would worsen congestion, and that the money would be better spent investing in the current bus system.

The proposed route of the Harbor streetcar/bus rapid transit line. Click to enlarge.

At a meeting of the OCTA board Nov. 13, Tait questioned why the plans still include a streetcar down Harbor Boulevard when the Anaheim council already has said they’re opposed to the idea.  

“We make choices – we can’t do everything,” Tait said. “So we could connect to Los Angeles, or connect to the airport, or we could put a massive amount of money into a streetcar system that has dubious numbers.”

The county transportation agency already is conducting a study of Harbor Boulevard, which is likely to include discussion of a streetcar, and is expected to come before the board in December.

The proposed route of the 17th Street/Westminster streetcar or bus rapid transit line connects Westminster to UC Irvine. Click to enlarge.

Tait suggested the board wait for that study before voting on the proposal, which the board rejected.

Board director and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said the OCTA board should fully study the streetcar and other options before making any decisions.

“We can always walk away, but if we walk away before we look at the numbers I think we’re not doing our job as good stewards,” Pulido said.

CEO Darrell Johnson said the Transit Master Plan still is a draft.

“There’s a long way between this discussion and a potential project,” said Johnson.

Before the board would make any decisions about what modes to use along any of the 11 routes, the agency would need to conduct additional studies of each corridor, he said.

“There is no recommendation here from staff but the only thing I would say about the Harbor, Westminster corridors is traditional bus has reached its limit,” Johnson said. “On Harbor, 10, 12 thousand people [are] getting on the bus. Putting more traditional bus, we don’t think, gets to that next level.”

Director Shawn Nelson, who sits on the county’s Board of Supervisors, said the Transit Master Plan should consider using the old Pacific Electric Railroad right-of-way to connect to Los Angeles.

“Us doing things one-off and on our own is not a great idea. I think the smart approach is to tie into the vast network that LA has already put a lot of investment in,” Nelson said. “[That] might be a great way to troll for some dough from the federal government.”

Several directors also raised concerns about the lack of proposed improvements in south Orange County, where OCTA already has been cutting traditional bus service due to low ridership.

Johnson said the Transit Master Plan is not a good reflection of all of the agency’s recent efforts to improve bus service in south OC, such as plans for small shuttles that travel to major destinations along a circular route.

“I think not every community needs a 40-foot bus, or a streetcar, or bus rapid transit,” Johnson said. “We want to find a solution for your community and every community is different.”

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

  • frustrated

    Santa Ana to Pay $1 Million for Car Dealers’ New Digital Billboard

  • Roy Reynolds

    Multiple iterations of the CenterLine died after it had dramatically shrunk at least twice and South Coast Plaza didn’t want its clientele. The Anaheim streetcar died thanks to community opposition and Mayor Tait. The Santa Ana Hooker Express is going to die when they can’t find the funding. I thought Darrell Johnson was a lot smarter than this — at least smarter than the oversized OCTA Board which has never seen a staff report it didn’t like. And I think I smell Pringle behind this.

    • David Zenger

      “And I think I smell Pringle behind this.”

      The concept is redolent with boondogglery. So, yes.

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  • Paul Lucas

    The street car makes absolutely no sense what so ever. Comparing cost of a street car vs extra dedicated buses makes that crystal clear.

  • Robert Dale

    My 1975 UCI paper on Transportation proposed linking Disneyland monorail to regional malls;
    major sports venues; airports & colleges. All major public destinations with large parking lots.
    Shame, Walt had the right idea, our best city planner!

  • frustrated

    The busses do not go where you need them to go and the bus passes are antiquated at best and do not connect to the needed bus routes and make you late because of too many freakin’ cars.

  • Roy Reynolds

    Last Stop of the Light Rail: http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=13877

  • kburgoyne

    Streetcars have been a bad idea for a while. They’re even more so with numerous companies on the verge of delivering electric semis, which clearly means electric busses as an offshoot. Busses can be rerouted, reallocated, etc. Tons of flexibility compared to streetcars.

    The faster payment and loading sounds good, but it raises the question of how busses are being used today. I would have thought the majority of riders had prepaid passes which would be just as quickly scanned. What percentage of riders on these heavily travelled routes actually dig out cash every day? And if there are a significant number, then understanding why is important. Can/will the demographic actually make use of the proposed changes? Particularly if there’s some reason they’re not using passes already.

  • David Zenger

    Bring back Center Line. Bring back Art Leahy.

    Why-o-why don’t the useless “streetcar” projects ever die? Because OCTA has an army of employees whose future depends on keeping this nonsense alive.

    And of course there is all the gravy to be ladled out the engineering companies and contractors – not to mention the lobbyist bag men.

  • LagunaTri

    Follow the money. And ask how that old CenterLine project worked out. May as well be the bullet train.