Nice Job for an Angry Rider

Times Staff Writer

Jane Reifer's trip on Orange County's bus system one December day was all too typical for the mass-transit veteran. Schedules were hard to find. New fare boxes delayed boarding. Buses fell behind schedule on major routes. Some passengers were stranded.

The gleaming glass-and-tile information booth at the central transit terminal in downtown Santa Ana sat vacant. Anyone with questions had to ask other riders or a janitor for help.

"There can be huge, huge problems for people using buses," said Reifer, who has emerged in recent years as one of the most outspoken and influential transit advocates in Orange County.

"If they are chronically late, people don't get to work on time. They can miss important family events. The scheduling information can be so bad. You shouldn't have to have a PhD to take transit around here."

The 38-year-old Fullerton businesswoman, who doesn't own a car, has been fighting for years to get improved service.

Now, she has the ear of Arthur T. Leahy, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority, which operates more than 800 buses on 79 fixed routes.

Early last year, Leahy was so impressed with Reifer's knowledge and assertiveness that he hired her to critique the county bus system and serve as the authority's first ombudsman. OCTA had, at last, a regular bus rider on the inside who could reflect the public's viewpoint -- an unusual thing for a transit agency.

In December, Reifer submitted a report containing 10 major recommendations to improve service and scores of suggestions for implementing them. OCTA's board of directors will discuss her ideas this month.

In general, Reifer said, OCTA provides clean buses, good drivers and service that is reasonably convenient. But even though that service is improving, her report concludes, buses are often late, many areas of the county are unserved or underserved, and better links between bus and rail service are needed.

"You can end up waiting 40 minutes for a bus, then they all come at once," Reifer said. "Drivers get off schedule and there is a domino effect. The core routes need more buses."

On a recent tour of the county's bus system, Reifer pointed out some of the annoyances riders face daily.

At the busy Fullerton transit center, scheduling information and OCTA's "Bus Book" was available -- at the train station across the street, not the bus stop.

The TravelTip system, a gray, shoulder-high computer unit that's supposed to dispense transit information, was out of service. When it was in operation, the system -- belonging to OCTA and Caltrans -- often gave outdated information, Reifer said. "To everyone's credit, they have turned them off."

This Route Not on Map

Anaheim's train station is directly across from Edison International Field. But the nearest bus stop is at Katella Avenue and State College Boulevard, a 15-minute walk after the early morning shuttle buses stop running.

To reach the bus stop, riders have to cross the stadium parking lot, duck through a gap in a chain-link fence and walk along a shallow concrete drainage channel to Katella. There are no signs. Help came from an Amtrak attendant, who pointed a finger in the direction of the bus stop and said, "That way."

By contrast, at the train station in Orange, OCTA buses stopped near the platform, a seamless transition for Amtrak and Metrolink passengers. The stop is clearly marked and visible to train riders.

Problematic Solution

Reifer also found fault with OCTA's improved fare boxes, which reduce fraud and do a better job of tracking ridership. They are slow to accept dollar bills, and coins can jam the machine if not dropped in one at a time. Both problems delay boarding.

"They can plan better, but it will take us forever to get on the bus, " said Reifer, who noted that delays also can be caused by scheduling that fails to account for heavy traffic and situations such as the extra time needed for boarding passengers in wheelchairs.

Reifer, owner of an office and home-organizing business called Clutter Control, is a self-educated transit wonk. Dependent on buses and trains since elementary school, she spends several hours a day aboard Amtrak, Metrolink, or OCTA's white, blue and orange coaches.

Reifer shunned driver's education at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove. When deciding on a place to live, quick access to mass transit, not freeways, was uppermost in her mind. She chose an apartment near the Fullerton train station, which is also a hub for buses.

But her baptism as an activist came in early 2000, when OCTA proposed an overhaul of its bus service. Planners wanted to replace the old hub-and-spoke routes with a grid system -- known as straight-lining or point-to-point service. OCTA officials said that would be more efficient and save time for most riders.

Hundreds of people protested, including Reifer, who formed Transit Advocates of Orange County.

After straight-lining began in September 2000, OCTA's ridership declined for the first time after years of steady growth. Customers found the new system so confusing that it often left people stranded or dashing across streets to make their connections to other buses.

Diced-Up Routes

"They would take one line and divide it into two lines. Service was eliminated and popular routes were changed," Reifer says. "Some people had to take five buses just to get someplace when they used to take two or three. That is unheard-of."

Reifer and Transit Advocates organized public forums to discuss the problems. In response to the efforts of Reifer and others, OCTA reconnected routes and restored service in some areas to make the system flow more smoothly.

The controversy subsided and people got used to the new system. Bus ridership rose 10% in 2001, the sharpest increase for any major metropolitan area in the nation.

But Reifer did not go away. She remained a fixture at OCTA board meetings, regularly taking the podium for the allotted three minutes to push for more routes, longer hours of operation and more service on nights and weekends.

Some of her suggestions have been implemented. Others are under consideration.

"She has provided valuable insights and a voice from the public that had been significantly lacking at the board of directors," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a former county supervisor who was chairman of the OCTA board last year. "She has shown us how bus service affects riders every single day."

In April, OCTA hired Reifer on a part-time basis for $10,000 per year after she came to the attention of Leahy, the agency's relatively new chief executive officer.

Leahy, a former bus driver from Los Angeles who worked his way up the transit ranks, heard her speak one day on transit issues and liked what he heard.

"She made sense. She was technically versed and assertive," Leahy says.

'The Staff Has Learned'

"It made some people at OCTA uncomfortable to bring her in-house, but I think it was a good idea to have a fresh pair of eyes break us out of our routines. Tension can be a good thing. Long-term, the staff has learned how to run a better transit system."

Leahy said the agency will try to adopt many of her recommendations.In her detailed 13-page report, Reifer says the bus fleet must be expanded.

More coaches would mean more frequent service, drivers could stay on schedule, travel times would be reduced, and fewer people would be stranded because of crowded buses.

Her report also recommends that scheduling information for other transportation agencies as well as Amtrak and Metrolink trains be added to OCTA's Bus Book.

Above all, Reifer says, the authority must combat the stereotype that buses are a second-rate transportation system for the underclass. Otherwise, transit will remain an underused "civic amenity" in Southern California.

"It is not just for poor people. It is not just for people in suits. It is for everyone," Reifer said. "Leahy absolutely gets it. I would like to see the entire bureaucracy get it. I hope they follow through on the information I have provided. I hope they do something."

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