OCTA Proposes Cuts to Bus Routes as Ridership Hits Low Mark

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC

An Orange County Transit Authority bus picks up passengers at a bus stop on Bristol Street, in front of Santa Ana College, in Santa Ana in September 2017.

An Orange County Transportation Authority proposal to cut back regional public bus service has sparked protests from riders and city officials who say the routes are vital to moving people across the county.

OCTA officials continue to grapple with the challenge of finding ways to increase the number of people using the bus system while at the same time absorbing cuts to bus service that have triggered serious declines in ridership.

Transportation agency officials on Monday said they will use the input they’ve received from the public and during recent board meetings on the topic to come back to the full OCTA board of directors on July 22 with a revised bus service proposal.

The possible route changes would take effect over October this year and February next year, and would turn a new page in the OCTA struggle to cope with a years-long decline in bus ridership that’s hit a new low:

There were 38.5 million bus boardings in 2018, according to transportation agency numbers.

That’s a nearly 27 percent decrease from the year 2012, which saw 52.6 million total boardings.

Ridership has consistently fallen every year since.

Three of the proposed route changes — to reduce service on the 53/53 express route between Anaheim and Irvine; to eliminate the 206 express route between Santa Ana and Lake Forest; and to streamline the 213 express bus to a more narrow route between Brea and Irvine — are among the most opposed by members of the public, according to the Transportation Agency, which started collecting public feedback on the proposals in April.

More than 20 bus routes are up for possible service changes, including new bus routing around the construction of the upcoming OC Streetcar project, as well as frequency improvements for other routes.

Click here to view all the proposed route service changes.

The 53 bus route saw a weekday average of over 6,000 boardings as of December 2018, according to the latest available numbers provided by the Transportation Agency. In that same time, the 206 route saw a weekday average of 47 boardings, and the 213 route had 44.

“I have been taking the 213 for the last 12 years,” said bus rider Helen Wondimu to the OCTA board of directors at their public meeting on Monday. She was one of six people who spoke at Monday’s meeting against some of the proposed changes.

Wondimu asked the Board to leave the 213 route as it is, arguing that she and other riders from north county need that route to get to work and that ridership started declining while express bus fares went “way up” from $2 to $4 in 2016.

“When the fare increase came in, we lost quite a bit of ridership, and this has probably impacted why the 213 is being corrected into a much more streamlined route,” said John Nyroos, another 213 rider at the meeting.

Three people at the meeting also opposed the elimination of a segment of the 86 route, which runs from Costa Mesa and Mission Viejo. Under the possible route change, the 86 bus would no longer make stops east of Jeronimo Rd and Los Alisos Blvd, ending instead at the Laguna Hills Transportation Center.

Mark Chagnon, the City of Mission Viejo’s Public Works director, said the route transports people with disabilities, and helps bring residents to the city library and civic center.

“The city is also concerned that many who will be affected may not be aware,” Chagnon said at the meeting, adding that his city has initiated its own outreach efforts to inform residents of the proposal. Though Chagnon was quick to add that the Transportation Agency “does a great job with outreach.”

The 86 bus saw a weekday average of 509 boardings, according to the Transportation Agency numbers.

For riders disrupted by the proposed route changes, staff are pointing to options such as alternate routes and the OC Vanpool program, which requires a commute schedule and designated pickup location. The program can also provide eligible riders with a $400 monthly subsidy.

Bus Ridership Reaches New Low

A total 38.5 million bus boardings in 2018 means OCTA is seeing its lowest-ever ridership numbers in about 30 years, according to the transportation agency’s spokesman, Eric Carpenter.

“That’s down from a historic high of 69 million riders in 2007,” Carpenter said in an email.

The year “2018 is not the lowest ridership has been but you would have to go back about 30 years to find similar levels of ridership in Orange County,” he added.

Between 2008 and 2015, bus ridership in the county fell by nearly 30 percent — faster than any other Southern California transportation agency at the time.

That prompted the Transportation Agency to implement its largest-ever overhaul of the bus system in 2016, cutting service in south county and shifting those resources to busier routes in north and central Orange County.

Past service cuts have in the past exacerbated those ridership declines.

After the 2016 bus system overhaul, ridership in the north and central county areas saw a nearly 20 percent increase, but ridership declines also worsened in the south county areas where service decreased.

Staff anticipate that the 129 bus route between La Habra and Anaheim — which would be incorporated into other bus routes — would lose the Transportation Agency a weekday average of 620 boardings, according to projections provided by the agency.

By comparison, staff estimate the new proposed 143 route between La Habra and Brea — which would incorporate some segments of the 129 route — would see the largest gain of 960 weekday average boardings as a result of the proposed service changes.

Staff argue that, overall, the latest proposed route changes would continue to slow the rate of countywide ridership decline like the initial route changes did in 2016.

“These are hard and difficult (proposals), and any time we propose a change that impacts riders, we take that seriously,” said Darrell Johnson, the Transportation Agency’s Chief Executive Officer, after members of the public spoke. “What’s on your schedule, we’ve been working on since April.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter at @photherecord.