Public Buses to UCI On Chopping Block

Approximately 100 people gathered in the board meeting room at the Orange County Transportation Association (OCTA) Headquarters on Friday, May 22 and participated at the public hearing regarding the proposed service reduction that will be effective September 2009 through June 2010. The proposed reductions include possible elimination of all OCTA bus routes to UC Irvine.

Since March, the OCTA has started a series of changes, which cut almost 40 percent of service hours and laid off at least 400 employees, in response to the state transit funding cuts and sales tax revenue declines.

The legislature reduced the State Transit Assistance program, which is the only source of state funding for day-to-day transit operations, representing a loss of more than $17 million through June. Additionally, these funds will be eliminated completely in 2010, which will result in a devastating loss of approximately $100 million over the next five years. Until the economy recovers, this funding source will continue to decline.

Since the service reductions and the layoffs of 400 employees in March, OCTA just announced earlier this May that there would be another service change on June 14 regarding service hours deductions. Moreover, OCTA is devising a large service reduction program that includes the following potential service changes effective September 2009 through June 2010.

In the service reduction program, OCTA is proposing a possible elimination of 400,000 bus service hours in the next fiscal year.

The reduction suggests a possible elimination of 59 bus lines and reduction of service hours and frequency on 21 bus lines. Night Owl Service on four bus lines may be eliminated. All routes that go to UC Irvine, including 59, 79 and 175, are among the 59 bus lines that face possible elimination.

Interim CEO James Kenan, OCTA Director Peter Buffa and OCTA Vice Chairman Jerry Annat were among the members of the OCTA Board, while the audience mainly consisted of representatives for senior and disabled communities, a number of disabled attendees who depend on the bus services and a few students from UCI and Cal State Fullerton.

During the first half hour of the meeting, the board explained the reason for service reductions and presented its proposed plan to implement the reductions. Afterwards, the floor was opened up for the public to express concerns about the service reduction.

Many people who spoke up depend on the OCTA buses daily. Ellen Shurtleff, a student from the FUTURES Special Education program at Saddleback Valley Unified School District, addressed the room.

“I go to work and school with the bus everyday,” Shurtleff said. “Without the bus, I won’t be able to go anywhere anymore.”

Nancy Dodson, the coordinator of FUTURES, brought 10 students to the meeting who carried signs that said, “I want to get to work and school. Keep the 82, 86, 87, 85, 191, 89, 70.” Dodson hopes that OCTA will not cut any buses in South Orange County because buses are already very scarce in the area. The students who live in Mission Viejo already have to walk one mile uphill to get to the nearest bus stop.

Roy Shahbazian, a UCI Extension professor and Santa Valley College professor takes the bus because he strongly supports the use of public transportation. Shahbazian attended this public hearing because he believes that OCTA has not done enough to lobby the state for public transit funding, and it was not doing its best to control some of the transit funds.

Regarding the turnout at the public hearing, Joel Zlotnik, the manger of media relations for OCTA said, “We had a couple community meetings last week and all the turnouts were really good. I think the turnout today was encouraging too.”

When asked about how much OCTA is going to listen and accommodate the public’s need, Zlotnik mentioned OCTA’s lack of options.

“We have no choice; we feel the same way about the service reduction as the bus riders. We just have a $33 million deficit because State Transit Assistant Fund is taking away $20 million every year from the public transit funding. With the sales tax drop and the worsening economy, the situation of OCTA is just the same as some business, families and individuals,” Zlotnik said.

The public hearing serves a platform for bus riders and Orange County residents to voice their opinions to the OCTA board and staff. Yet upon many people’s complaints about OCTA diverting the funds from public transit to freeway expansion, OCTA staff was less sympathetic and simply said that they could not just shift the money originally aimed for the 91 freeway expansion to the public transit.

Steven Chan, a second-year medical student in neurology and psychiatry, took the line 53 to the OCTA headquarters and stated that he was not satisfied with the OCTA board members’ response about the balance of budget between freeways and public buses.

“The OCTA board rolled their eyes every time a person mentioned the budget being diverted to the freeways,” Chan said.

One of the solutions that can make up the budget shortfall is dramatically increasing bus fares. OCTA board consulted the audience regarding whether people will still ride the bus if the bus fare is increased from $1.50 to $5.00. They stated that if people do support the increase of bus fares, they should attend the public hearing concerning the fare adjustment in the upcoming month.