If Oxnard's response is any indication, a bumpy road lies ahead for South Coast Area Transit officials attempting to revamp the west county bus system that has long suffered from dwindling ridership.
Oxnard City Council members this week gave only cautious support to streamlining local routes by cutting the number of stops. They also expressed strong opposition to funneling more of the city's money into the flagging system.
"You say, 'Put more money into a system that's not operating in a way it should be,' " council member Dorothy Maron told SCAT officials. "I don't agreed with that."
Council members also viewed a SCAT ridership increase of 14% since January as an indication that the system may not need an overhaul after all. "Of course, it's valuable to get their input even if it's somewhat skeptical," said Maureen Lopez, SCAT's marketing and planning officer, "It gives us a better indication of what to be sensitive to."
SCAT officials hope to use Oxnard as a sort of laboratory for efforts to revive the system, which operates under a joint-powers agreement signed by Oxnard, Ojai, Port Hueneme, Ventura and Santa Paula. If the plan works in Oxnard, SCAT would like to export it to the other cities it serves.
The problem is that SCAT has been steadily losing riders in the last four years, despite the county's population growth. While the county has been growing at a rate of 2% to 3% annually, SCAT has been losing passengers at a rate of 4% a year.
What's more, the service barely makes enough through fares to meet state requirements, according to SCAT officials. The state requires bus services to recover 20% of their expenses at the fare box, and SCAT recovers 21%. On one-third of its routes, fares don't even cover the cost of fuel and wear on tires and batteries.
"You've got a system that's going downhill," said Ray Rebiero, an associate with Barton-Aschman Associates, a Pasadena consulting firm studying the problem.
Rebiero blamed irregular departure and travel times as well as long and circuitous routes. "A trip that takes 10 minutes by car," Rebiero said, "could take an hour and 20 minutes." On the other hand, the bus schedule varies so much that the same trip could take 10 minutes less or 25 minutes longer.
The fact that SCAT's resources are spread thin does not help. The study found that in terms of miles covered, available buses and hours of operation, the services offered by SCAT are comparable to those of bus companies serving areas with one-third of SCAT's 300,000 population.
The resulting inconveniences are so troublesome that "the public that would use the system is reduced to the least common denominator--those who must use it," the report concludes.
Only by taking such drastic steps as shortening routes to make them more direct can SCAT win riders, according to the report. In fact, Lopez credits this quarter's 14% jump in ridership to such measures.
But SCAT officials say if they can get Oxnard to go for their plan, which will be considered either in May or June by SCAT's six-member Board of Directors, they can turn around the system.
The first stage of the experiment calls for re-directing three of Oxnard's routes to eliminate redundancies and speed cross-town travel. This would actually decrease the city's contribution of $758,000 to SCAT by 2.7% in the first year.
But a later step could cost the city 32% more than its current payment. Described by SCAT as the "pulse" approach, it would centralize all of Oxnard's bus operations at the Oxnard Transportation Center in four to five years. All buses would leave every half hour, making catching the bus and transferring routes much easier.
To encourage workers to abandon their cars for a bus seat, SCAT would also add routes to such business centers as Oxnard's burgeoning Northeast Industrial District.
SCAT officials are hesitant to make guarantees, but they said the most ridership could be expected to increase by is 20%--and that would occur only in the last year of the plan and after a vigorous marketing campaign.
But some council members were not convinced that SCAT can be turned around.
Councilman Manuel Lopez noted that he had done "my own research" and taken a SCAT bus from his north Oxnard home to his mid-town office Tuesday. While the bus deposited him at his destination on time, he doubted that he would do it again, saying his car was more convenient.
"The apathy is something I don't know how we're going to cope with," Lopez said.
Other Ventura County cities have also been reluctant to support the consultant's proposals.
The Santa Paula City Council last week objected to suggestions that it drop SCAT service to other Ventura County cities, opting instead for a scaled-down van service that would operate in Santa Paula. Called "Dial-a-Ride," the proposed service would have sent vans to residents' homes on demand and would have cost the city three times more than its current service.