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Bus Riders Feel Stranded by Lack of Valley-to-Valley Runs

Santa Clarita Transit officials admit the need but say expanded service is at least two years away.

October 13, 2002|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

To hear Santa Clarita resident Jim Hogan describe his public transit travails to and from the San Fernando Valley, you'd think he lives on an island where ferries to the mainland are few and far between.

"We're landlocked," said Hogan, a 55-year-old office worker. "It's terrible."

The lack of all-day, seven-day-a-week local bus service between the two valleys -- separated by less than a dozen miles of mountains -- has long been a complaint of transit riders. But there has been little official action to date, other than issuing reports that repeatedly document the problem.

Officials acknowledge the lack of transit service is a top "unmet need," but say there will be no improvement for at least two more years, when a new Santa Clarita Transit bus yard opens.

The yard will allow the agency to operate more coaches.

"We know this is important to the public. It's the No. 1 priority," said Bob Murphy, transportation manager for Santa Clarita Transit. "Our main barrier right now is lack of resources in terms of facilities. We're just out of room."

Over the last decade, the agency's fleet of buses and paratransit vans expanded from 29 to 80 vehicles, and the agency cannot handle any more until the completion of a 12-acre maintenance yard in mid-2004, Murphy said.

Expanding service also will require more funding, he said. The cost of adding one line with all-day stops would be $1.26 million. The transit agency's budget is $11 million a year.

Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs buses into the jurisdictions of other transit agencies, such as Ventura County, say they provided $4.75 million to Santa Clarita Transit this year and it's up to Santa Clarita to decide how to spend it.

One thing is certain. Bus riders on both sides of the hills are fuming.

"When I talked to MTA about it, they said to talk to Santa Clarita. Santa Clarita said just to talk to MTA about it," said Wayne Wright, 41, a Windsor Hills resident who believes the two agencies should talk more to each other.

Transit advocates blame the inaction on a lack of political will.

While a 1994 MTA study, a 1997 Santa Clarita Transit report and more recent public hearings have proposed creating a local bus line running between the two valleys, no route has been added.

"If [the agencies] wanted to get service sooner, there's a way to do it," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a nonprofit group in Sylmar. "The working poor, they just don't have the constituency to push for this."

Commuter buses and trains do run between the valleys, but riders say the routes and schedules don't serve non-commuters who depend on transit.

Santa Clarita Transit runs express buses mostly during morning and afternoon rush hours to such areas as Warner Center, Van Nuys, Century City and downtown Los Angeles. The commuter buses don't run at night or on weekends.

Metrolink trains connect Santa Clarita to downtown Los Angeles, with stops at Sylmar, Sun Valley, Burbank and Glendale from Monday to Saturday. But the stops can be infrequent, sometimes hours apart. And there's no service on Sunday.

Kymberleigh Richards, a spokeswoman for Southern California Transit Advocates, said the higher cost for commuter service is a hardship on low-income riders.

A commuter express bus ride from valley to valley costs $3.50 one way, and up to $5.25 for rail. Riders pay $1.35 or less for a local bus ride.

Disabled riders have an especially tough time traveling from valley to valley, said Hogan, chairman of a committee advising the city of Santa Clarita on transportation for the disabled.

The disabled have all-day paratransit service within Santa Clarita and within the rest of Los Angeles. But between the valleys, only three paratransit vans run a day--one in early morning, one about noon and one in the late afternoon. Such limited scheduling makes it difficult to keep doctor appointments, disabled riders say.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires transit agencies to provide paratransit at a level comparable to their "fixed-route" service, such as local bus lines. Commuter buses and trains are not considered "fixed route."

Because there is no "fixed-route" service between the two valleys, there is no corresponding obligation to provide all-day service to disabled riders through this area, said David Foster, spokesman for Access Services Inc., which oversees paratransit in Los Angeles County.

But if either the MTA or Santa Clarita Transit ran all-day bus service though the mountains, then Access would run similar paratransit service.

The lack of an inter-valley local bus line also has frustrated employers as well as job-seekers.

"Welfare-to-work programs are great, but people still have to get to work," said Rachel Feldstein, director of Chrysalis, a Pacoima nonprofit group that helps people find employment.

"Clients don't even bother applying for jobs in Santa Clarita. They check the bus map, and they find they can't get there," Feldstein said.

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