In the brisk dawn air, as a full moon gives way to the rising sun, 30 passengers crowd around the front of an Orange County Transit District bus as it pulls to the curb to begin another run.
Amid a rush of people, Olivia Hernandez, toting her 3-week-old daughter Yajahira in a sling, dumps change in the fare box and hustles her other children--Anthony, 3, and Sandy, 2--to seats in the rear.
With a hiss, the front door closes and almost every seat is filled. The bus slowly rolls away from the Flower and 6th streets stop in downtown Santa Ana and another morning commute begins along Route 85.
It is a typical weekday trip for Hernandez, a 24-year-old housekeeper, who, like most people aboard, is traveling to a job in South County.
The 6:26 a.m. bus illustrates a growing phenomenon. The passengers, mostly working-class men and women, cue up to ride to construction and service jobs created as developers erect houses in affluent communities such as Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Dana Point and San Clemente.
The Route 85 fare is $1 for most everyone, but children 6 or younger ride free. As the longest single bus route in the county, it covers 39.5 miles and makes dozens of stops. Depending on traffic, the trip south takes roughly 90 minutes. Twice this month, the bus has been so crowded at times that California Highway Patrol officers have pulled it over and ordered a few passengers off.
“You can’t say Orange County is operating empty buses,” said Orange County Transportation Authority spokeswoman Joanne Curran. “The urbanization of Orange County has arrived.”
In a county where a new road recently opened between Irvine and the Coast Highway to help accommodate an increasing number of cars, most of these passengers do not have access to private transportation, making the bus line a necessary link between home and work.
“We are dependent on the bus,” Georgina Ravel said in Spanish as she stepped from the bus in San Clemente. There, she planned to catch a second bus before arriving at her job as a maid.
Route 85 riders like 22-year-old Antonio Salgado note that taking a bus is “more economical.” Salgado, his plastic lunch bag tied to the seat in front of him, said he has taken this line each day for the past year to his construction job in Laguna Niguel.
His only complaint is that “the days are getting a little colder in the morning.” As he spoke, he gazed out a window and into an orange sun rising slowly over a field of tomatoes in Irvine.
Transit officials acknowledge that the number of buses along some Orange County lines has not kept pace with the increased ridership. The result is that buses are often crowded and dangerously overloaded during morning and evening commutes. A bus is overloaded when it exceeds its legal weight limit for safe operation.
“You have to get to the bus stop early to get a seat,” said Josefina Munoz of Santa Ana. Munoz, who works as a maid in Mission Viejo, rises each weekday morning at 5 to catch the Route 85 bus with Lourdes, her 4-year-old daughter, who was trying to catch some extra minutes of sleep on the rocking bus seat under a checkered wool blanket.
John Stover, 21, of Tustin said he was “surprised to see a seat” one recent morning as he looked up from a newspaper article about a CHP officer who ordered passengers off an overloaded bus the day before.
Usually “it’s crammed to the yellow line” that is painted on the floor just behind the driver.
Route 85 twists from Santa Ana’s Civic Center to San Clemente’s K mart Plaza. Over the last two years, the average number of passengers each day has doubled and now surpasses 4,000. Meanwhile, transit officials say they do not have enough money to expand their fleet of 449 buses.
After a CHP officer stopped the bus on Wednesday, transit district drivers were warned to take more accurate head counts of passengers and pass up people when the bus is full. On Friday, the district took four buses from some of its 60 other routes to help carry Route 85 passengers.
The arrangement helped ease crowding for now, but spokeswoman Curran said the transit agency is still looking for a long-term solution to the overcrowded line.
Said Route 85 driver Jon Freidline: “There’s no real set way” to determine how many people will cause a bus to exceed its weight limit. On a recent day, Freidline’s solution was to shrug at people at bus stops as he drove past.
Cradling a novel about the Vietnam war in his hands, passenger William Probst said he had “talked to (one) bus driver about it, and she said she won’t take on more people” when all the bus seats are full.
Drivers, he said, have no trouble being strict about other bus rules.
As an example, he told about the consequences of breaking the no-smoking policy on a bus one day after work. “The driver pulled over, came all the way back here and told me to get off. . . . He was a big old burly guy. I couldn’t even argue with him,” Probst said with a smile.
As the transit district works to ease the crowding issue, officials said, the morning crush will continue as riders such as Olivia Hernandez and her children hustle to the bus to get seats.
“It’s usually most crowded on Fridays and Mondays,” Hernandez said, as the bus neared her stop in Laguna Niguel. She said the bus usually was most crowded when “maids who work (in South County) over the weekend take the bus down Friday morning and then return Monday night.”
Coming to her stop, she rose quickly and shook her children awake. “This makes for a long day,” she said as her workday began.