Orange County transportation officials are moving ahead with more public bus service cuts to cope with a years-long ridership decline, but backed off plans to slash some bus routes after objections from riders.

Of the 24 route changes originally proposed, 11 were modified and six were completely withdrawn since June.

The changes will decrease service on bus routes that the Orange County Transportation Agency (OCTA) said it considers underused and increase service on bus routes where the agency said demand is higher. A unanimous OCTA Board of Directors approved the final plan at their Monday, July 22 meeting.

But the final plan differs greatly from the original service change proposals the agency had been working on since April and floated before board members in a public hearing last month.

Among the previous proposed changes were the potential elimination of the
53/53 express route between Anaheim and Irvine; the 206 express route between Santa Ana and Lake Forest; and the 129 route between La Habra and Anaheim.

Those proposals were some of the most opposed by riders over the course of OCTA’s public outreach period and at the June public hearing, and prompted OCTA officials to withdraw those suggestions entirely.

OCTA also backed off cutting down the 86 route between Costa Mesa and Mission Viejo — which would have shortened the route to end at the Laguna Hills Transportation Center — after Mission Viejo residents and city officials voiced their opposition at the June public hearing.

The transportation agency will move forward with eliminating the 211 express route between Huntington Beach and Irvine for what staff say are low ridership numbers, despite OCTA staff saying they received objections to that proposal as well.

Click here to view the final approved bus service changes.

Board Director Lisa Bartlett before the vote thanked OCTA staff for reshaping the final plan amid public outcry.

“I think the public, and certainly the ridership, is really happy with these changes,” Bartlett said. “We have to make some tough decisions, but to the extent that we can make some minor tweaks to some of the routes and still keep those routes in place … it really helps the traveling public out there.”

The transportation agency’s Transit Planning Manager Gary Hewitt said at the July 22 meeting the final plan is expected to grow ridership by over 100,000 boardings per year.

Some bus riders will see changes in their commute in October this year and again in February next year.

The county bus system saw a total of 38.5 million bus boardings in 2018, the lowest in 30 years, according to OCTA staff.

When OCTA conducted the bus system’s largest-ever overhaul in 2016, the agency generally cut service in south county and shifted those resources to busier routes in north and central Orange County.

Although the transportation agency reported positive results in north county where service increased, OCTA staff said ridership declines worsened in the south county areas where service decreased.

Increased Costs for Bus Contractor

Staff said the latest proposed route changes would continue to slow the rate of countywide ridership decline like the initial route changes did in 2016, and cut down on the cost of operating buses that aren’t as utilized as others.

After OCTA made its last set of bus service changes in February, the agency’s CEO Darrell Johnson in a March memo reported a significant increase in missed trips and lost service, largely caused by labor shortages.

Much of the lost service happened on fixed-route buses, according to OCTA staff, which are operated by a contracting company called First Transit and make up 40 percent of the transportation agency’s bus service.

As a result of First Transit’s labor issues, OCTA staff asked board members for a $6.5 million increase on their contract with the company to operate the fixed-route buses, bringing the amount to over $242 million. The board approved that request unanimously at the July 22 meeting.

The contract increase required board members to amend the transportation agency’s operations budget and draw over $4.5 million out of the Local Transportation Fund, which comes from state general sales tax dollars.

The company said it needed the money to increase its workforce, which is short by 50 drivers.

OCTA staff said by allowing First Transit to continue operating the fixed-route buses, it will save the agency a total of $24 million as opposed to OCTA operating the buses directly.

Board Director Don Wagner said he was skeptical of the contract increase and called the staff-estimated $24 million in savings “a red herring.”

“The issue isn’t First Transit or ‘we assume all the duties,’” he said, arguing that OCTA staff could have taken the contract “back out to bid and find out if somebody could have done this at a savings to us and not come back to us with a request for more money.”

Wagner also pointed to a bus performance report given to board directors at the July 22 meeting indicating First Transit’s “courtesy and reliability were below standard.”

“Part of that is attributed to the driver shortage, which I guess I get, but (First Transit) made a bid. And our obligation is to analyze those bids amongst all the different bidders and pick the bid that was best for the public,” he added.

Board Director Gregory Winterbottom called the choice between spending more money on First Transit and OCTA directly operating the fixed-route buses alongside its other ones “an interesting conundrum.”

“I mean, we could save a whole bunch of money if we just cut the system,” he added. “Don’t run buses. That’ll save us all the money in the world.”

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

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