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Orange County

Bosses Go Along for the Ride

OCTA board members learn the ins and outs of the bus system they manage -- and a better appreciation of what daily riders experience.

May 03, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

A dozen Orange County transit leaders left their boardrooms and high-rise offices Friday morning for a taste of what it's like to ride the buses they oversee.

They cruised Main and Bristol streets in Santa Ana, two of the county's busiest routes. They wedged themselves into the narrow seats of crowded coaches or stood shoulder to shoulder in the aisles, hands clinging to overhead straps. Occasionally, they couldn't make their transfers on time, and found themselves waiting 10 to 20 minutes for the next bus -- just like the riders they serve.

When the three-hour run was over, the eight board members and four top executives for the Orange County Transportation Authority said they had more appreciation for what riders go through, not to mention a better understanding of what's wrong and right with the bus service they provide.

"We need to know it, get it and feel it from the customer," said Cypress City Councilman Tim Keenan, chairman of the OCTA board of directors. "Waiting to make transfers, my patience ran out after about 10 minutes. This was definitely an eye-opening experience."

With an annual budget of $647 million, OCTA operates 808 vehicles that range from small vans to large coaches nearly twice the size of standard buses. Ridership is about 210,000 a day, 64 million a year.

The outing, designed to give board members a practical look at the county's transit system, is part of a broader initiative launched in January to improve bus service.

The "Putting Customers First" plan calls for better scheduling, measures to keep buses on time and more accurate route information more easily accessible to riders.

The idea that board members needed more hands-on experience stemmed from a meeting between Keenan and community activists who support rail and bus transit. After that discussion, Keenan said, his wife proposed a transit field trip, something he hopes will be done annually.

"I'm glad to see this," said Roy Shahbazian of Rail Advocates of Orange County. "The board doesn't realize how hard it can be to get around on a bus. It is a completely different world from driving a car."

The official riders began their trip about 10 a.m. at the bus stop outside OCTA headquarters on Main Street in Orange. Eight board members and four OCTA officials, including Chief Executive Office Arthur T. Leahy, divided into four competing teams.

Each group had to make a certain number of stops and transfers along a route that eventually led back to the OCTA offices. By 1 p.m., all had completed their rides.

Shortly after the bus left OCTA headquarters, board member Cathryn De Young, a Laguna Niguel councilwoman, boasted, "Looks like my team is going to win."

Her board colleague, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, shot back, "My team has already won." He then turned to a rider who asked him to autograph her daughter's copy of "Harry Potter -- Goblet of Fire."

With the exception of Leahy, who is a former bus driver, most OCTA board members have had little, if any, experience riding buses. They pored over route maps and schedules to make sure they made the right stops and connections.

"This is a good idea," said rider Doug Vosler, 25, of Garden Grove, who was headed to work at Santa Ana's Main Place mall. "Otherwise they might make decisions without knowing much about the system."

Board members took note that a bus shelter was needed for one of the busiest stops in Santa Ana. On the long, articulated rigs, they observed that street announcements were sometimes difficult to hear.

"You've got to know your corners and your stops," said board member Greg Winterbottom of Villa Park, who uses a wheelchair and boards with the help of ramps and lifts -- a process that can delay buses. "We didn't have much of a focus on the bus system for a while. Now we are working hard to improve it."

As the trip proceeded Friday morning, OCTA board member and county Supervisor Bill Campbell found himself jammed into a seat at the back of a northbound bus on Bristol. Noting the number of passengers, he said the busiest routes need more buses to prevent delays and overcrowding, which can leave customers stranded at stops.

"You shouldn't have to wait 20 minutes to make a transfer if you miss a bus," Campbell said. "We need more buses. We need more frequency in the busy areas."

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