Rider Praises Fastrak Despite Doubled Commute Time

Times Staff Writer

Lori Schaefer usually drives to work. The 15-mile trip between Mission Viejo and South Coast Plaza takes 25-30 minutes on most days, she said.

But on Monday, Schaefer decided to take Fastrak, a new commuter service that combines an Amtrak train and local vans.

Despite its name, Fastrak began service Monday by delivering Schaefer to her company in about twice the time it normally takes her to make the trip by car.

"I don't think I'll come to work this way tomorrow," said Schaefer, who works for U.S. Facilities, a reinsurance company in the Town Center Building.

Although the service got off to a bumpy start, local officials hope that Fastrak will be an integral part of a wider plan by developers, property owners and hotels to reduce traffic in the South Coast Plaza area. The traffic management plan will provide incentives for workers to join car pools and van pools.

The traffic program, sponsored by the South Coast Metro Alliance, will be funded with $100,000 raised by the group, plus $100,000 in federal funds. Fastrak is sponsored by South Coast Plaza and the C.J. Segerstrom & Sons development company.

Schaefer's Monday trip involved driving south for 15 minutes to catch a northbound Amtrak train at San Juan Capistrano. Schaefer got to the train station on time, but the train did not. She waited for 20 minutes before making the 20-minute trip to the Santa Ana Transportation Center.

She and three other Fastrak passengers then climbed into a waiting van operated by Luxe Transportation Corp. for the final 20-minute leg to South Coast Plaza.

Nonetheless, Schaefer described the ride as "stressless" and said she's recommending Fastrak to her friends. "It's a nice, easy ride. It makes going to work a lot less aggravating than taking the freeway."

Schaefer's experience underscores some of the obstacles that Fastrak's sponsors will have to overcome to make a go of the first county attempt to integrate Amtrak service between San Diego and Los Angeles into a local commuter network.

"We know we've got a real sales job convincing people to give up their habit of driving," said Stanley Taeger, a spokesman for the alliance and director of property management at South Coast Plaza.

Fastrak is designed to provide service to San Clemente and Laguna Niguel, and any other communities within a reasonable drive to the San Juan Capistrano train station. An 11-passenger van will meet three trains each morning, the 6:41, the 8:03 and the 11:06.

The vans will drop passengers off in front of three points in the Plaza area: the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Central Bank and Imperial Bank. Return service from the Performing Arts Center is scheduled for 3:13 p.m., 5:13 p.m. and 6:17 p.m.

Aside from relying on Amtrak to run on schedule (Amtrak officials said trains do that 96% of the time on the San Diego-Los Angeles line), Fastrak faces several other hurdles. One is the cost to the passenger. A daily round-trip ticket costs $12.60. Eight dollars of the ticket represents train travel, with the rest going to Luxe.

Luxe is providing the service under a 90-day agreement with South Coast Plaza to determine whether the operation is profitable, according to Robert Thompson, vice president of the company.

In an inauguration ceremony in front of the Performing Arts Center on Monday, Costa Mesa officials praised South Coast Plaza for starting Fastrak and for its future integration into the alliance's broader transportation management program.

"Solving the county's transportation problems takes more than just money," added Peter Buffa, a Costa Mesa city council member. "It takes great ideas. And this is a great idea."

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