Orange County transit officials said Monday they would probably delay any changes to the bus system until September, following weeks of furor over a proposed overhaul, which prompted nearly 300 angry riders to pack a public hearing in Santa Ana.
More than 1,600 complaints have flooded the transportation agency in the last few weeks--petitions, e-mails and letters all protesting the most extensive change ever for the bus system.
Those concerns came to a head at Monday’s five-hour public hearing, the longest ever for the Orange County Transportation Authority. Hundreds of bus riders packed two rooms, many taking time off work to appear. Speaker after speaker appealed to transit board members to reconsider eliminating key lines and changing other routes.
“We are housekeepers, baby-sitters, construction workers, janitors,” said Naomi Gutierrez, who brought 900 signatures protesting the planned elimination of Route 57 along Bristol Street. “Many years ago, people moved to be closer to work, but with the high rents in Orange County it’s impossible. We make a living by taking the bus. It’s our only transportation.”
Transit officials say straightening the routes--keeping the buses on main boulevards and off neighborhood streets--would make the system more efficient and allow for planned expansion. Planners say the changes would reduce commute times for about 60% of riders while increasing travel times for about 30%.
At Monday’s meeting, those who would be adversely affected spoke up, some close to tears, others shouting in agreement with those who rose to speak.
The blind, the developmentally disabled, the elderly and those too poor to afford a car all asked board members not to tinker with the system they have come to rely on. And many in the crowd were angry with transit officials they accuse of not knowing what it’s like to need the buses to get to work, church, school, shopping and even the doctor.
“I wish the people who made these decisions or people in their families had been dependent on the buses for a month so they would understand,” said Jenny Greenman, whose comments got a rousing ovation from the crowd.
An earlier speaker had asked board members to raise their hands if they regularly used the buses to get to work. No one did.
While transit officials quelled the concerns of a contingent of speakers from the Braille Institute of Orange County by promising the school would still be served--probably from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday--most in attendance left uncertain about the fate of their lines.
Among concerns raised:
* Elimination of Route 69, a direct connector between Fullerton and Santa Ana that will be replaced by two lines.
* Elimination of service to Balboa Peninsula via Route 53.
* Discontinuation of service directly to Leisure World in Seal Beach, which more than 500 residents protested in a petition.
* Three routes, the 65, 74, 76, that would no longer serve the UC Irvine campus.
* Too many transfers. One physician who testified said the new system might cause problems as “serious as a heart attack” for seniors and the disabled.
* Training for the disabled on the system, now used by thousands with cognitive or physical disabilities. “There aren’t enough mobility trainers in all of California to teach 1,600 people overnight,” warned Harry Taylor, director of community service for the local Developmental Disabilities board.
The marathon session led many to question why transit officials hadn’t gone to the public before unveiling the grid-like system that worries many bus riders.
“One of the main things we want to see changed is the chance to involve the public at the beginning so you don’t inconvenience thousands of people and scare them,” said Jane Reifer of Auto Free Orange County, a group of residents who promote the use of public transportation. Reifer’s group plans to meet March 8 to talk about alternatives to the current plan.
Transit officials defended their course of action, saying most bus riders don’t have the technical expertise to design a new route system.
“The thought was that we needed a recommendation on a system that would work,” agency spokesman Dave Simpson said. “We thought the appropriate time to bring the public in was during he public comment period, which we are doing.”
Still, members of the public weren’t the only ones to say they’d been cut out of the loop.
Bus driver and line captain Anthony Castella, who has worked for the transit agency since 1991, said many bus drivers also believed the changes were unwise.
“If I would have brought up the concept of straight-lining the first week I worked for the OCTA, they would have said I was naive, that I needed to get out there and drive a bus for a while to understand,” Castella said. “If we all lived in a place like Manhattan Island, where there is a grid, then straight-lining would work, but Orange County wasn’t designed that way.”
Transit officials, however, say the changes are needed to modernize one of the fastest-growing systems in the country and prepare for a planned increase in service on the lines. They say they believe the bulk of concerns raised can be resolved before the board is scheduled to vote on the matter March 27.