It wasn't that long ago that Orange County's public transit system was named best in the country. Just 2005, in fact.
The Orange County Transportation Authority was lauded for its service to the nation's fifth most populous county, logging a record number of bus trips and ridership growth. The agency was leading the way in green technology, the economy was booming and sales-tax revenue was pouring in.
OCTA officials celebrated the honor by plastering a gold-medal logo, with their new bragging rights printed across it, onto the agency's 947 buses.
Fast-forward to 2009. Those stickers are gone, along with all the hoopla and hopes of growth. These days, the mood around the OCTA is downright depressed.
"We're in the middle of a near-catastrophic meltdown in Sacramento," OCTA Board Chairman Peter Buffa said. "The same transit system we were so proud of in 2005 has been greatly reduced, and shortly will be decimated."
From a budget surplus of $12 million in 2004, the OCTA is now facing a $300-million shortfall over the next five years. Fares rose in January, but that just drove riders away, resulting in even lower revenue. Cuts last year and those planned through March 2010 will reduce bus service by 30%, dropping back to 1998 levels. There were 42 layoffs in April, and additional layoff notices were sent out this month to 51 employees. Officials anticipate another 192 positions will be eliminated in March.
For years, the OCTA and other transit agencies have benefited from a strong economy, which provided sales-tax revenue and state funding. Economists had estimated the sales-tax revenue would continue to grow about 5% per year -- one year it actually grew by 11%. That 5% annual increase was projected out into the agency's comprehensive business plan from 2006 through to 2026.
"That's what they thought the future was," said Kenneth Phipps, the OCTA's executive director of finance and administration. "And it hasn't been that at all."
Since December, the OCTA has cut 133,000 hours of bus service. The agency plans to subtract 100,000 more hours next month, and an additional 300,000 in March.
Those cuts have been felt by passengers. On Tuesday, only a handful of people sat under the arches of the Fullerton Transportation Center during rush hour, waiting for their rides.
For Nathan Uhrich, 25, the cuts have taken a toll on his sleep, work schedule and social life. Dressed in a bright blue "Star Tours" uniform, Uhrich was nearly an hour into his 1 1/2 - to 2-hour commute home to Placentia from his job at Disneyland in Anaheim.
He began taking the bus early this year after his car broke down. With buses coming less frequently, Uhrich said he must schedule his work shifts around hours he can catch buses.
The bus schedule has also wreaked havoc on his social life, and he's unable to go out as much. "I got Netflix," Uhrich said. "I'm on my computer a lot more too."
The OCTA and its passengers aren't alone in their woes. While the agency's bus ridership was down 13% for the first half of this year compared with last year, Los Angeles' Metro bus ridership was down 4.3% over the same period without a fare increase. San Diego's North County Transit District was down 16%, but like the OCTA, it had raised fares.
Allison Yoh, an associate director for the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA, said transit agencies across the nation are "scrambling to get the resources together to continue their services" and are cutting costs, reducing routes and hours, and increasing fares, often haphazardly.
"It's really a hemorrhaging-control mechanism," she said. "If you don't have the budget there to deliver the service, what do you do? You cut back."
The bleak picture isn't changing soon for the OCTA, which makes new Chief Executive Will Kempton's job even harder. He started this month with the goal of keeping the budget in line and cuts to a minimum.
Last week, OCTA staff informed the board that projected sales-tax and fare revenues are probably going to be about $12 million to $13 million less than anticipated this fiscal year.
Sales-tax revenue funds about 33% of OCTA bus operations. And though it was already projected to be down in January, later estimates from the state show that it's likely to be a couple of percentage points lower than expected, to the tune of about $8 million.
Ridership is down 20% compared with last June, largely because of the high unemployment rate and the 25-cent fare increase. That may result in an unanticipated revenue loss of $4 million to $5 million.
"There's certain things we can control, obviously the level of service we put out . . . and what we charge for that," Phipps said. "But what we can't control are all the external economic factors."
Other transportation agencies in California have also been hurt by the elimination of the state's Transit Assistance Fund, which helped the OCTA pay for local bus services. In 2007, the OCTA received $36.6 million; no money was budgeted for the fund in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
The nonprofit California Transit Assn. has sued over the state's raid on transportation funds to balance its budget, and the case is making its way to the state Supreme Court.
So far, the OCTA has avoided outright elimination of routes, but that may change with the anticipated cuts in March.
"If there's light at the end of the tunnel, at this point I don't see it," Buffa said. "Some of our dreams . . . and many really exciting programs are now just going to have to wait."
He said plans to double Metrolink service in Orange County by the end of 2010 and to get a rapid-transit bus system up and running this year have been delayed or scaled back.
The agency has had to use $44 million in reserves this year to plug the revenue shortfall for bus operations.
"We look at what we can sustain over the long term, it's the responsible thing to do," Phipps said. "It's not how much service we can possibly put out on the street today. It's how much we can sustain.
"Because we're not supposed to go away tomorrow. We're supposed to be here for the long haul."