Funds OKd for Study to Improve Bus Service : Antelope Valley: County officials say the program hasn't kept pace with rapid growth, despite a $2.3-million annual budget.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although public bus service in the Antelope Valley costs about $2.3 million a year to operate, Richard DeRock believes it has a serious identity problem. "The sense we have is, almost no one knows there's any transit system up there," said DeRock, a county transportation official.

The valley has grown to a population of more than 200,000 people in recent years. But county officials believe its bus service has not kept pace, that it is not well designed or used and that it fails to serve many needs. So they are talking about changes and improvements.

One step in that direction came Wednesday when the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission approved plans for an $89,100 consultants' study that is supposed to result in plans for an overhaul of the Antelope Valley's bus transit system by the end of the year.

The proposals could include a fare increase, DeRock said. But they also could contain plans for a threefold or fourfold increase in current service levels, including shorter intervals between buses, longer service hours and service for new areas.

The study will be the county's second such effort this year. A plan by county public works officials earlier this year to both increase fares and service drew opposition from Lancaster and Palmdale city officials. But both cities agreed to support the outside study.

The issue is a touchy one for the cities because the same state sales tax money they now use for popular street resurfacing and other improvement projects might have to be diverted to pay for proposals to improve the bus service, depending on their ultimate extra cost.

The cities also are unhappy because the county for the first time forced them to help pay for the bus system this year. Of this year's $2.3-million budget, the county's share is $913,000, Lancaster's is $670,600 and Palmdale's is $410,600. Fares are supposed to provide the remaining $332,500.

Because the Antelope Valley is outside the Southern California Rapid Transit District's service area, bus service is provided by a private company under contract to the county. Fixed-route buses provide local service, new commuter runs take workers to the San Fernando Valley and downtown, and there is a local dial-a-ride program.

But when he talks to local residents, DeRock said, it's often not praise for the transit system he hears. "The comment I've heard over and over again is, 'We have a transit system?,' " he said.

Changes to the area's bus service could begin as early as January or February, he added.

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