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County Extends Seniors’ Bus Fare Subsidy, Berates OCTD for Asking

Times Staff Writer

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday temporarily extended a bus fare subsidy for senior citizens, but then angrily accused the Orange County Transit District of trying to boost its revenues “at the expense of senior citizens and the county.”

The stormy, hourlong hearing ended with a 4-1 vote to give the transit district the $375,000 unspent from last year’s $900,000 allocation of federal revenue sharing funds, which could pay for free and reduced-fare rides for the elderly through November.

Sole Negative Vote

Supervisor Bruce Nestande was the lone vote against the limited subsidy, calling it “the cruelest hoax that’s ever been played on seniors in my experience in government.”

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The money could have been better spent on programs for elderly shut-ins “who can’t even make it to the bus stop,” Nestande said.

“We are their last resort, and we’re talking about taking $375,000 and giving it to a bus subsidy and cutting off these other programs,” Nestande said of the nutrition and day-care programs for the elderly that also face cutbacks this year with reductions in federal aid.

During the last 12 years, the county has spent $6.4 million to help an estimated 280,000 senior citizens ride the bus each month. Under the program, seniors pay 35 cents during rush hour and nothing during the rest of the day, rather than the normal 75-cent fare.

But the federal revenue sharing money that bankrolled the subsidy is scheduled to be cut off next year, and county supervisors have said the transit district will have to look to its own coffers.

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Supervisors were irritated that the transit district board had asked for a renewal of the subsidy--effectively throwing a political hot potato at the county--knowing that the federal money that pays for a variety of social service programs is on the way out.

In fact, said Supervisor Roger Stanton, the transit district could easily offer seniors free or reduced-fare rides at no extra expense--and he heatedly challenged OCTD General Manager James Reichert to deny it.

“If tomorrow you said they can’t ride for free anymore, how much would you save? Nothing! That’s the answer. Why don’t you say that? . . . They are not costing you any money to get on those buses, most of which are empty anyway, Mr. Reichert, and you know it,” said Stanton, a member of the transit district board, as two dozen or so seniors at the hearing responded with a smattering of applause.

Reichert said the $900,000-a-year revenue loss will be a blow to the transit district no matter whose rides the allotment was expected to finance. The district could dip into its $200,000 capital savings account, as Stanton suggested, but that money is earmarked to build a $400,000 network of commuter lanes and transitways on the Santa Ana Freeway, a key transit priority for Orange County, Reichert said.

Clark Opposed Resolution

Supervisor Ralph Clark, chairman of the OCTD board, was the only board member to oppose a resolution proposed by Stanton to “encourage” OCTD to continue the reduced fares by immediately taking on the subsidy out of its own budget, eliminating the need for even this year’s $375,000 extension from the county.

Clark, a longtime supporter of the subsidy, said it was unfair to ask the district to take on the added expense in the middle of the budget year. Technically, the new subsidy would not take effect until after the beginning of the next fiscal year July 1. Clark was unavailable after the meeting, but his aide, Dan Wooldridge, said Clark “will leave no stone unturned” to find money to continue the fare subsidies.

Reichert said the district probably will take up the issue at its meeting Monday and decide whether to schedule a public hearing on a possible fare increase for the elderly. A minimal increase, such as requiring seniors to pay a small fare during off-peak hours, could help extend the $375,000 subsidy beyond November, he said.

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