It's 7:16 a.m. Friday, and it seems odd that 11 of us are swooshing down the Costa Mesa Freeway's car-pool lane while cars in adjacent lanes appear parked, as though the rows of motorists are waiting for a drive-in movie to start.
Mary Rankin of Anaheim Hills, an Irvine Co. secretary, occupies a window seat near the middle of our 18-passenger minibus. "I started doing this one day and I've been sold on it since," she says. ". . . It's no stress. You just sit down, you can sleep or read, whatever."
On the back bench seat, Naren Mistry of Riverside, a Pacific Mutual programming consultant, flips through the pages of Success magazine.
We're aboard the Newport Center Shuttle, the most recent in a series of experiments--some of them not very successful--aimed at alleviating traffic congestion in Orange County.
Two years ago, Orange County Transit District and Santa Ana city officials reluctantly decided that the "QT," a shuttle experiment in the downtown Santa Ana business district, was an embarrassing failure after only a few months of operation, give-away promotions and $100,000 in operating losses.
Earlier this month, auditors hired by the Orange County Transportation Commission complained that the Laguna Beach transit line, which includes trolleys and trams that go to and from the Laguna Beach Arts Festival's Pageant of the Masters, had experienced a 4% decline in ridership during the last two years and a cost increase of 14%.
Still, tram and shuttle services are expected to play a major role in moving people around Orange County in the next two decades. Environmental impact statements prepared for the planned expansion of John Wayne Airport emphasize trams and shuttles for easing expected traffic problems. So do environmental studies being done on major business and research complexes in Irvine, and the planned San Joaquin Hills, Eastern and Foothill freeway projects.
Recently, even the California Coastal Commission--which is responsible for safeguarding the shoreline from problems that include traffic jams--began insisting that plans for growth in Newport Beach include some sort of tram or trolley service.
So the Newport Center Shuttle, with a $120,000 subsidy from the Irvine Co., and an unrelated trolley service operating in the Balboa Peninsula-Corona del Mar-Park Newport triangle, are the latest attempts to show the way.
The shuttle's 17.4-mile ride for a $1 fare to Newport Center (Fashion Island) Friday morning is bouncy and noisy, but nobody seems to mind. We arrive at 7:39 a.m., six minutes ahead of schedule and 24 minutes after boarding the white minibus at the state-county park-and-ride lot at Lincoln and Tustin avenues in the City of Orange.
An hour later, the same trip back in a car took 38 minutes.
"I've been using this since it started (June 1) and it's wonderful," says Donna Dann of Anaheim, a computer applications analyst who's riding the shuttle to Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Newport Center. "I've got a 25-mile drive each way. . . . And if anybody as been in gridlock on the 55 Freeway, it's awful. And you just sit here on the bus, relaxing. And then you're at work, and you feel great. And you take the bus home, you feel great, you don't have to hassle (with) all the traffic. It's something that Orange County really has to think about doing more of."
Dann previously lived in Santa Ana and rode OCTD buses to work. It took an hour and a half each way, every day. "That's not rapid," she says. "And that's not transit."
Taking the Newport Center Shuttle means that she works 30 minutes longer each day, since she used to quit at 4 p.m. but now stays to catch the 4:30 minibus back to Anaheim. "It's worth the extra time that I spend at work," she said.
Several passengers, including Mistry, said that the ride is quicker but that they spend more time because they arrive at the park-and-ride lot early and wait for the shuttle. But they said that the reduction in stress was well worth the extra time spent.
The two shuttle minibuses are similar to the stubby vehicles that hotel and car rental companies use at airports. The first shuttle starts its run from Peralta Canyon Park at 6:35 a.m., stops at the Orange park-and-ride lot at 6:43 a.m. and arrives at Newport Center at 7:15 a.m. The second shuttle leaves from Peralta Canyon Park at 7:05 a.m., picks up more passengers at the Orange park-and-ride lot at 7:13 a.m., and arrives at Newport Center at 7:45 a.m.
Transport People to Lunch
From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the same two vehicles circle Newport Center, taking people from offices to lunch spots, shopping and back.
The first shuttle returning to north Orange County leaves at 4:35 p.m., the second at 5:05 p.m.
Charity Crawford, transportation management supervisor for the Irvine Co., said that the commuter run is more successful than the multistop, mid-day operation around Newport Center Drive.