Fillmore Bus Service Goes a Little Further : Transit: FATCO drivers will often help carry groceries, drive to riders’ homes or telephone regulars when a run has been canceled.
James Parton awakes before dawn each Tuesday, hurriedly dresses and heads out the front door. Tapping a white cane to the ground, the legally blind Fillmore resident navigates his way to a street corner near his home.
The city bus ride he awaits--which he has not missed since the new route began in November--departs at 5 a.m. for Moorpark’s Metrolink station.
The groggy bus driver who picks Parton up might just as well be his personal chauffeur. Parton is always the only passenger on the bus on the trip to the rail station to catch the 6:05 to Van Nuys.
“It almost seems silly to keep this running because it’s just me,” said Parton, 39. “But I’m sure glad it’s there.”
Parton’s daily ride is provided by the Fillmore Area Transit Corp., a growing bus operation that has thrived in small-town Fillmore because of its emphasis on providing a personal touch.
FATCO, as it’s known to Fillmore residents, started in 1973 with a single 12-passenger bus. Though bus routes and ridership were limited in the beginning, the fledgling business soon built a strong reputation as a bus rider’s friend.
“We like to think of it as a bus company with a personality,” said founder J. Chapman Morris, 62, a lifetime Fillmore resident.
Among the routine practices of FATCO that would shock riders of most bus companies in larger cities are such simple niceties as these:
* Drivers often deviate from their routes to provide front door service and a helping hand carrying in the groceries.
* In the event a scheduled run has to be canceled--as during a storm in 1989--FATCO regulars are phoned at home or at work, sparing anyone a pointless wait at a bus stop.
* And when Parton turned out to be the only Fillmore commuter on the newly scheduled run to the Moorpark Metrolink station, the bus system declined to cancel the run. Instead, FATCO agreed to Tuesday pickups for Parton, an avid record collector and movie buff, to allow him to continue weekly excursions to his favorite Los Angeles record and video shops.
“It’s a typical small-town operation,” bus driver Phil White said. “We can provide far better service than any bus company in the larger cities.”
White, 68, retired from the United Parcel Service nine years ago after working there for 38 years. Soon after, he signed on with FATCO.
“I enjoy people so this fits right with what I like to do,” he said.
Like White, most drivers are retired, longtime local residents. A list of past drivers includes a former city manager, principals and other civic-minded residents who have chosen to stay active in their community.
“These folks want to continue helping the community any way they can. If it becomes work, then they lose their job,” Morris said, chuckling.
Though now a permanent fixture in the community, public transit was a concept most Fillmore residents had not bothered to consider before FATCO’s inception.
During the early 1970s, Fillmore had the option of joining the newly created South Coast Area Transit district. But R. Wesley Nichols, who was then city manager, was skeptical, suspecting that Fillmore would end up losing its share of gas tax contributions to a system that would ignore the little town’s transit needs.
“He was afraid that (SCAT) would take our funds but not give us sufficient transportation because we are way out on the end of the road,” Morris said.
Instead of joining SCAT, Nichols launched a search for somebody willing to start up a local transit district. Nichols said he believed a privately run transit company could be operated more cheaply, thereby preserving gas tax funding.
“The city manager asked all of the automobile dealers in Fillmore to bid on a bus system,” said Morris, who owns the town’s Chevrolet dealership started by his father, William L. Morris.
There were no takers at first.
“None of us knew anything about running a transit system,” Morris recalled. “I said, ‘Why do you want a bus system? I live on the other side of town and I walk to work.’ ”
In the end, however, Morris became convinced that a local bus company might save the city money. He contracted with the city to provide bus service on a six-month trial basis, buying a 12-passenger bus and starting business Aug. 1, 1973.
The one-horse bus system initially covered a three-mile radius confined to city limits, though sometimes drivers bent the rules, and their routes, to reach farmers on the outskirts of town.
“It wasn’t long until we started receiving fan mail explaining how the service had changed their lives,” Morris said. “I then realized there was a definite need.”
Word of the bus company’s popularity spread to outlying areas. Soon requests came in from nearby Bardsdale residents who wanted service to Fillmore. Eventually they got their wish, as did Piru residents.
By 1979, Morris was ready to expand his fleet to two vehicles. He purchased a 44-passenger school bus and chartered runs to and from Simi Valley for the Ventura County Assn. of Retarded Citizens. The acquisition eventually led to regular service to Simi Valley and Moorpark.
Today, with eight buses and a team of 10 drivers, FATCO hauls about 58,000 riders a year and has expanded service to Santa Paula and Ventura.
FATCO prides itself on donating its buses and drivers to charitable organizations and activities--or whenever the need arises.
“It’s a service that just doesn’t exist in too many places anymore,” said Bernice LaClaire, a longtime patron and Piru resident. LaClaire, who does not drive, catches a ride into Fillmore each week to do her grocery shopping.
“On the way back, the driver pulls into my driveway and helps me carry the grocery bags to my doorstep,” she said.
What does the future hold for FATCO?
With ever-encroaching suburbia creeping toward the Santa Clara Valley, the little transit company is beginning to think of playing a larger role in county transportation.
Morris has hired Russ Wilson, a retired field operations manager for Los Angeles’ Rapid Transit District, as a consultant to help FATCO cope with its growing pains.
“The whole area is going be a bedroom community for Los Angeles one day,” Wilson said. “Those people will look for alternatives to driving.”
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