OCTA Cuts Leave Riders Stranded

When the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) posted its annual report for 2008, the figures seemed promising for the county’s central transportation agency. Despite sharp increases in the price of gasoline – or, perhaps, because of it – bus rider-ship reached an all-time high of nearly 69 million, a very decent figure for a county as car-obsessed as ours.

Yet despite the growth of riders, OCTA continues to face budgetary stresses, which are exacerbated by the Great Recession sweeping the country at the moment. It should be understood that in addition to the bus system, OCTA is responsible for the improvement of streets and highways as well as improving the service of Metrolink rails within the county. Although OCTA draws funds from fares, tolls, interest on investments and federal support, most of the money in its 2008-09 fiscal budget comes from its own reserves (28 percent), state sources (23 percent) and local sources (29 percent). The latter two sources are largely derived from a state quarter-percent sales tax and a county half-percent sales tax, which were, respectively, originally estimated to total almost $400 million out of a $1.06 billion budget.

Unfortunately, the recent recession caused California sales to decline overall, meaning OCTA isn’t getting quite the amount of funding it anticipated. According to some grim projections, funding will likely continue to fall short for the next five years. Furthermore, most of OCTA’s budget for this year is tied up in services and programs designed to improve several major highways, as well as expanding the county’s Metrolink service, which is ultimately central to OCTA’s vision for its public transportation system. This leaves one sector open to significant cuts: the buses.

In the last three weeks, OCTA regretfully (it is assumed) announced its decision to taper losses by slashing the bus service over this year, cutting bus trips by nearly a fourth and laying off nearly 400 bus drivers, supervisors and maintenance workers. For a system that is largely a subsidized service for those who can’t drive, either because of age, disability or financial difficulty, this plan of action is disastrous.

Making your way around Orange County by bus is already difficult enough. Unlike larger cities, such as New York or Chicago, Orange County’s buses generally do not use straight routes, but instead use intensely deviated ones in order to cover enough ground to be effective. Some routes take nearly an hour to get from point A to point B. Case in point: Route 178, which I use to go from Huntington Beach, where I live, directly to UC Irvine, requires approximately an hour to complete its trip. That doesn’t include my 20 minute ride on Route 29 (servicing Beach Boulevard from the coast to Brea Mall) to get to the 178, or the 10-minute walk from my house to the 29 bus stop. You can imagine how much longer, complicated or tedious it would be if they cut trips on either one of these routes, which, thankfully, they didn’t — at least this quarter.

Some routes have already felt the effects of the cuts. One of the only all-nighter bus lines the OCTA provides is Route 57, which goes from Newport all the way to Brea, mainly using Bristol Street. It is one of the most relied-upon lines in the OCTA roster, since it connects major and minor roads throughout Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Orange, Anaheim and Fullerton. These cities are composed of immense numbers of Hispanics and Latinos, who make up half of the OCTA rider-ship. In spite of these factors, the number of complete trips on the 57 has been reduced, either by shortening the distance they cover or removing them completely. Similar practices have been applied to a large number of other bus routes.

Besides the obstacles of the revised bus system itself, financial difficulties are also beginning to strain ridership. In January, OCTA made a decision to increase nearly all bus fares; a single trip went from $1.25 to $1.50, a huge increase from the $1 it cost in 2004, and an all-day pass no longer costs $3, but $4 ($2.50 in 2004). For bus riders, most of whom already face financial difficulty that has only been made worse by the recession, making ends meet has become that much harder.

When I first attended UCI, in 2004, I thought taking the bus to school wasn’t so bad. Although the trip took nearly an hour-and-a-half total, it was pleasant to use the time napping, reading, studying or doing homework (I can’t tell you how many assignments I’ve completed in transit). To top it off, since bus fare is free for all UCI students, I estimate that I’ve saved nearly $25,000 (at AAA’s formula of 54.1 cents per mile when driving) over the five years I’ve spent riding the bus as an undergraduate. For me and for the approximately 60,000 people who ride OCTA buses daily, the bus isn’t just a last resort to get somewhere, but it’s the only way to go.

With OCTA cutting over 500,000 hours of the bus service since June 2008, getting around is increasingly challenging. It now takes me nearly two hours (occasionally even more on busy days) to get to and from UCI, and it’s a sure thing that similar delays are affecting students not only here, but all over the county. They not only affect college students, but people of all ages, as 26 percent of riders are younger than 18.

It is senseless that in a period of recession, when the financially distressed depend on public transportation more than ever to stem their expenses, that the system should be scaled back instead of expanded. Although I do not begrudge the drivers their infrastructure, I must beg the question of whether it would really hurt anyone to divert some of the $103.1 million OCTA intends to use to improve the highway systems. The project report, environmental documents and design packages for the expansion of the SR-57 Northbound Freeway alone is $2 million. Surely a percentage of that and of several other OCTA projects can be used to protect the bus riders.

And the people who deserve the most pity are the bus riders, the crowds waiting around bus stops during peak hours. Many of them have probably waited 10, 15, 20 minutes or longer for their rides, only to have them arrive too full to take on any more riders, meaning another bout of waiting must begin — another duration of going nowhere.

Minhquan Nguyen is a fifth-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at minhquan@uci.edu.