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Flight of the Night Owl

Transit: Workers on graveyard shift catch a break with O.C.'s expanded bus service.


Instead of sleeping at night, driver Robert Bennett now cranks up his county bus and gets on to Harbor Boulevard at 12:23 to hunt for graveyard-shift workers who need a ride home.

Bennett, who drives Route 43 from Costa Mesa to Fullerton, scans bus stops for the janitors, busboys and hotel workers who used to travel through the sleeping cities by foot or bike.

"Everyone is going to benefit from this bus," says Bennett, a 34-year-old Ontario father of two who figures he will save $800 a month in child care by working nights. "It helps the graveyard-shift guys. It helps a bus driver like me who wants hours that give me time to be with my children."

Bennett found few riders this week because the late-hour service began only Monday and word has been slow to spread, despite the Orange County Transportation Authority's multilingual advertising campaign. Some late-night workers say the four routes running between midnight and 4 a.m. don't go where they work or live.

Those who caught Route 43 early Wednesday had stories to share about the challenges of getting around without a car late at night in a county that bustles with traffic during the day. At 12:40 a.m., restaurant cook Pablo Alvarez jumps aboard at Wilson Street in Costa Mesa, smiling because he won't have to wait nearly two hours for a ride home from a co-worker.

Five minutes later, chimney factory worker Fabian Sanchez, 26, hails the bus at Segerstrom Avenue in Santa Ana instead of walking nearly three miles to get home. After eight hours lifting concrete blocks, he slips on his headphones and relaxes.

At 1 a.m., Ken Williams, a 20-year-old Santa Ana College student who spent the night studying and visiting relatives, pays his $1 fare for a ride to his brother's job, where he expects to get a ride to his home in Garden Grove.

As the bus rolls through the lighted boulevards of desolate fast-food joints, car dealerships and office buildings, the riders agree that the OCTA's Night Owl Service will save them money and time.

"Before, I'd have to wait until 2 or 3 o'clock to get a ride home," said Alvarez, 47, who carries an oil-stained bag of fried shrimp from the restaurant where he works four nights a week at $10 an hour. Alvarez, who lives with his wife in an apartment near Fairview Street and McFadden Avenue in Santa Ana, said he doesn't drive because he has had vision problems since he was a boy.

Most nights, Alvarez said, he hitched a ride home with a co-worker or called his brother for a lift. Alvarez said his brother was willing to help out but "you don't want to bother people if you don't have to, particularly at this time of night."

Because the bus closest to his house, Route 47, has stopped running, Alvarez must walk 20 minutes from the restaurant to the Route 43 bus after midnight. When he gets off at McFadden Avenue, he walks one mile home. For the first time, the shrimp arrive warm. Next week, he plans to use a bicycle to get to and from the bus.

Arthur Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer, said when he moved to Orange County in early 2001, he was surprised to see people like Alvarez walking home late at night and others cycling along thoroughfares in the predawn hours.

An OCTA study determined that the late-night workers are the same people who use county buses during the day.

Offering the Night Owl Service seemed like the right thing to do, said Leahy, who started night bus service when he was the transportation chief in Minneapolis.

OCTA is not expecting packed buses immediately, said Leahy. In the first four nights of the extended bus service, several hundred riders boarded but exact numbers will not be available until October, said OCTA spokesman George Urch. Leahy said once word gets out, the late-night service will attract as many as 200,000 riders a year.

Maria Medina, who earns $50 a night working concessions at Anaheim tourism spots, said she will be among the riders. The single mother of three, without a car since her Dodge Dart died seven years ago, said she pays a quarter of her nightly wages to take a taxi home to Placentia. Now she will spent a dollar taking the Route 57 bus and connect to Route 50.

"There are so many people in my position. I've walked up Harbor Boulevard and run into all kinds of people walking and biking at night," said Medina. "The new buses are going to help us all."

Jane Reifer, a member of Transit Advocates of Orange County bus riders group, believes ridership will grow quickly. "This is going to allow me a social life," she said. "Instead of spending money on cabs

Janitor Socorro Murillo said the closest of the night routes would still leave him with a three-mile walk. But the service is a good start, Murillo said. "I do think it will help some of the people I see out on the streets every night."

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