The sun is still sleeping as nannies, maids and hotel workers wait for the first Route 57 bus in downtown Santa Ana. The time is 4:57 a.m.
These Spanish-speaking immigrants are already commuting to jobs that begin at 7 or 8 in the morning on south Orange County's tony coastline.
The longest leg of the trip, to Newport Beach and beyond, is on the 57 bus, which traverses 16.6 miles of Orange County from northeast to southwest, from working class to upper class, from roofs of aging gray shingle to those of new Spanish tile.
The 57 bus has become a second home for a tight-knit immigrant community of thousands of riders. They spend about four hours a day traveling on it, transferring to it or waiting for it. Now, a plan to end 57 bus service to Newport Center has them facing even longer commutes--an extra 22 minutes each way by one estimate--and in some cases, a third bus connection.
Transit planners say the change will straighten circuitous routes and make the system more efficient. The modifications will result in even less time with families for the riders on the 57, many of whom already work 10- to 12-hour days. Some worry that the commute time could threaten their jobs, or at best force them to pay higher bus fares.
To them, something less tangible is also at stake. Without the Newport Center as a transit hub, they will be robbed of the few short moments of camaraderie that break up long, numbing days of caring for other people's children, tending to lawns and cleaning homes.
Every morning when they arrive in Newport Beach, halfway to their destination, 30 or so nannies and maids form a human circle just blocks from Fashion Island, one of California's poshest shopping centers. Waiting for connecting buses or rides from their employers for as long as an hour, they thrive on gossip, tacos and sales pitches from one maid who doubles as an Avon lady. Some arrive early just to see their fellow commuters who have become friends, or even pseudo family they call comadres.
One of them, Noemi Gutierrez, has collected 900 signatures on a petition opposing the planners' route change.
"It's like they didn't take us into account," she says. "We work very hard all day. Who wants to take three buses? It's not like we are sitting down all day at work."
Under the new plan to take effect in September, routes would run either east and west or north and south rather than traveling in all four directions as the 57 and other buses do. Few buses would stop in the existing terminals such as the Newport Beach facility.
The plan shocked riders, drivers and public transportation advocates. Critics say eliminating service on Route 57 exemplifies how the Orange County Transportation Authority fails to understand the plight of its riders.
Jane Reifer of Auto Free Orange County, a group that promotes use of public transportation, said OCTA's plans are misguided because they don't efficiently connect riders with major shopping and work centers.
OCTA officials disagree, saying that so-called "straight lining" will ultimately make bus service more effective for riders and were formulated only after significant input from the public.
Straightening the bus lines will ultimately allow OCTA to serve a greater portion of the county, officials said, and to deal with an expected jump in the number of commuters needing transit services.
"We are building to meet greater demand. Our population is going up dramatically. We need a structure that handles the demand," spokesman Dave Simpson said. "Change is something that a lot of people don't like. They will see the benefits of it."
Officials said that some routes and timetables have not yet been established. But using available information, The Times estimated that Route 57 riders would require 92 minutes to take a pair of buses from Santa Ana to the Newport Center Bus Terminal, compared to the present 70-minute trip that requires only one bus.
For those who take the 57 round-rip, that's more than 40 extra minutes a day away from their families just getting to and from work. With many riders already putting in 10-hour days on the job, some fear it's more than their schedules can tolerate.
"Why would anyone want to cut the service? The buses are packed. We are coming to work," said Vilma Batres, 34, a native of El Salvador who leaves her home at 5:30 a.m. each day and returns at 8 p.m.
Batres and others on the route said they can earn $60 a day in South County--far more than similar jobs in Santa Ana, Anaheim and other nearby cities pay.
"We really have to work hard to get to these jobs. Without the 57, things will be even harder," said Maria Cervantes, 38, who works as a nanny.
Cervantes' employer, Newport Coast resident Allison Greenberg, shares the concern. "If she can't get here, how can she work here? It could really affect us all," said the mother of two toddlers.
For many of the women, the 57 bus is more than a ride to work--it's a support system they've relied on for a decade.