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Funds Withheld From Area Bus System

Transit: About $260,000 is held back after two cities criticize west county line that serves seniors and the disabled.


OXNARD — Displeased with the west county's special bus service for seniors and the disabled, the board overseeing South Coast Area Transit voted Wednesday to withhold about $260,000 from the system's operating budget.

The action came after city councils in Oxnard and Ventura voted not to fund the total amount requested by SCAT because of what the cities called "inefficiencies" in the way the Dial-A-Ride service is run.

Jim Friedman, a Ventura council member and member of the SCAT board, said he was not willing to "rubber-stamp" SCAT's requests for more money until the agency comes up with a plan to improve service.

"This system is not operating near efficiency, so why throw more money at it," Friedman said. "When both Oxnard and Ventura are unhappy about the way it is run then there have to be changes."

SCAT staff members requested an increase in the Dial-A-Ride budget for next year from $1.08 million to $1.34 million, an increase the service says would allow it to carry about 6,000 passengers a month instead of 5,000.

The SCAT system, which operates a standard bus line along with the Dial-A-Ride system, is funded by the four cities and the county. Each city appoints representatives who serve on the SCAT board.

The Dial-A-Ride service, which serves seniors and the disabled in Ventura, Oxnard, Ojai and Port Hueneme, has had growing pains since its October inception. The 10-bus system, which charges up to $1 per ride, initially employed a dispatch system that used Post-it notes--with the name of the rider stuck to a large map--to schedule its stops, officials said.

By the end of the year, SCAT and its bus provider, Laidlaw Transit, was using a computerized system, but several officials expressed doubts about the new system's effectiveness.

Tom Mericle, transportation engineer for the city of Ventura, told the board that riders wondered why the buses were so hard to schedule when they often carried only one rider at a time. Many riders have complained about the amount of time spent on the phone making a reservation.

At the Ventura council meeting, Mericle mentioned a county employee who followed a SCAT paratransit vehicle to learn where the bus went. The bus driver took a much longer route than necessary to get across town, Mericle said.

"Why would a driver be doing that kind of thing?" he asked.

Rita Johnson, transportation program manager for the city of Oxnard, said SCAT staff members need to come up with creative solutions to their problems. She said one successful Ventura program that could be applied systemwide is "bundling" riders who travel to the same destination, like the grocery store, by setting a time and picking them all up together.

"These are the types of things that are not being pursued," Johnson said. "The position of our [city] council is that we are very interested in making the statement that there need to be more efficiencies . . . like these."

Friedman said he hopes SCAT staff members will brainstorm and come to the board with suggestions on how to increase the number of riders per hour. "I also believe they need to take a good hard look at what policy changes could be made by the board and come up with some suggestions for policy changes."

SCAT staff members and Laidlaw representatives said many of the problems might be alleviated by a new software system to link available buses with riders.

Although SCAT has been using a Laidlaw software system since the beginning of the year, a better system is expected to be implemented by September.

"Scheduling is live or die for transit services," said J. Bryant Worley, general manager for Laidlaw Transit.

Peter Hidalgo, general manager for SCAT, appeared disheartened after the meeting.

"It's unfortunate that we had to get into this," he said. "We need to have a balanced budget and to meet our financial obligations. The contractor [Laidlaw] may say to us, 'We don't know if it will be possible to continue at this level.' "

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