OCTA to Focus on Improving Bus Service

Times Staff Writer

To improve service to hundreds of thousands of bus riders, Orange County's transit agency Monday ordered a broad initiative to ensure buses run on time and the public gets scheduling information more accurately and more easily.

The plan -- dubbed "Putting Customers First" -- grew from a list of problems presented to the Orange County Transportation Authority by staff and consultants.

"The truth does hurt, especially if you think you are No. 1," said Supervisor Tom Wilson, who serves as an OCTA board member.

"We should be overjoyed with the results and be openly receptive," Wilson said. "I would like to see this list shrink."

The OCTA board and staff will analyze scores of suggestions and try to implement some of them during the current budget year, which ends June 30.

"This is a first step in ratcheting up the quality of our organization," said OCTA chief Arthur T. Leahy, a former bus driver.

With a $647-million annual budget, OCTA operates 808 buses, ranging from small transit vehicles to large articulated coaches almost twice the size of standard buses. Ridership now exceeds 64 million a year. About 210,000 people use county buses daily.

The agency, which has been trying to increase ridership since overhauling its routes in 2000, hired two consultants last year to evaluate the system and asked staff members to study ways to improve service.

In general, bus expert Robert Holland and Fullerton businesswoman Jane Reifer, a frequent rider and an outspoken OCTA critic, said the agency provides clean buses, good drivers and reasonably convenient service.

But they also concluded that buses are often late or off schedule; many areas of the county are unserved or underserved; scheduling information often is inaccurate or hard to find; and better links are needed between rail and bus service.

Reifer's evaluation made 10 major recommendations to improve service and more than 80 suggestions for implementation.

She found, for example, that OCTA's new fare boxes are slow to accept dollar bills and can be jammed easily by coins, delaying boarding. Bus schedule information at the Fullerton transit center was only available at the train station across the street from the bus terminal.

To improve on-time performance, OCTA has proposed reviewing bus operating procedures and adding 10 employees to supervise bus routes and check whether drivers are on schedule.

In the budget year ending last June 30, OCTA provided 1.67 million hours of bus service. By 2015, the agency had planned to expand service to at least 2.2 million hours. Officials now want to move up that deadline to 2008.

Among other things, Monday's initiative calls for OCTA to provide more up-to-date scheduling information for customers and to make sure the information is readily available at county transit centers and major bus stops. Trains and other bus systems would be added to OCTA's Bus Book, which is the agency's free scheduling guide.

Similarly, OCTA officials have proposed extending the hours of the agency's Customer Information Service, which bus riders can call daily for current schedules or for information about the county transit system.

"Three years ago, who'd have thought that people at OCTA would be accepting these recommendations rather than discounting them?" Reifer said. "There is good potential for many of these things to become policy."

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