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OCTA Hopeful Radio System Works

The problem-plagued, overdue project could be approved this month if testing goes well.

September 05, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

For years, technical and management problems have dogged Orange County's effort to install a new communications network for hundreds of buses run by its public transit agency.

Radios fail. Digital tracking devices indicate that vehicles are in the ocean. Dispatchers begin conversations with "Can you hear me?" Bus drivers resort to their own cellphones in emergencies.

It is hardly the type of performance expected from a state-of-the-art radio and vehicle-management system that will cost the Orange County Transportation Authority at least $12.6 million.

Now, with the program more than three years behind schedule, OCTA is trying to salvage the communications project and overcome chronic reliability problems that some say threaten the safety of both drivers and riders.

"You can get through almost right away with your cellphone, but you can't get through right away with the company radio," said Luis Urgell, an OCTA coach operator who was beaten and choked by a passenger in June.

When he grabbed his on-board radio to call for help, dispatchers told him to call back with a cellphone or find another telephone because they could not hear him.

"I don't feel comfortable with this radio after what happened," said Urgell, who suffered scratches and a split lip before his attacker fled.

A few months before the attack, an audit by the American Public Transportation Assn., an international organization of officials, government agencies and transit-related businesses, found that the radio system "places employees and patrons at risk."

OCTA officials concede difficulties, but are hopeful that tests will show the system now works properly. If so, OCTA is prepared to sign off on the project by mid-month.

The agency said various steps have been taken to improve the system, from replacing the original project team to making a greater effort to ensure that the firm hired for the project, East Coast firm Orbital Sciences Corp., is held accountable.

In recent months, OCTA said, reports of radio failures have dropped dramatically and drivers are never out of contact for more than 10 seconds during radio transmissions.

Still, the project "has not been performing to the levels that we expected," said Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer. "We have had some very difficult discussions with the vendor to get the issues resolved. We have insisted that we have to have results," said Leahy, who took over the agency three years ago.

Orbital Sciences has defended its work. Late or not, company representatives say, OCTA will end up with a modern and reliable vehicle-management system. OCTA awarded the contract in 1997 after the board of directors agreed to replace the agency's aging radio system with one of the nation's first digital networks designed for a transportation agency.

The proposed system featured digital voice and data communications, global positioning technology to determine the precise location of buses, and silent alarms as well as hidden microphones aboard transit vehicles.

OCTA officials touted the project as "state-of-the-art infrastructure" that would increase safety and eventually accommodate all of the agency's communication needs for the next two decades. But seven years later, OCTA records and interviews with employees show that silent alarms have failed, dispatchers spend anywhere from five seconds to several minutes trying to talk to drivers, and efforts to plug other agency services into the network have failed.

Because of safety and reliability concerns, several units within OCTA are searching for new radio networks. Agency officials said the radio project has taken so long that they have decided to seek a different communications system for field supervisors, deputy sheriffs who provide security, and the agency's fleet of 250 smaller paratransit vehicles that serve disabled and senior riders.

Also problematic, critics say, is the global positioning feature, which relies on satellites to track buses throughout the county. A 2002 audit found that the system sometimes seemed to show that buses were in the ocean.

Today, dispatchers say buses are still sometimes shown at locations that don't match what drivers report. In the past, some deputy sheriffs responding to silent alarms have shown up at the wrong place.

The Freeway Service Patrol, an arm of OCTA that provides tow trucks and other roadside assistance along with the California Highway Patrol, tried out the radios, but abandoned them after a six-month run, citing safety concerns.

The radios fail "without notice," wrote CHP Lt. S.A. Sechrist in an April 2002 letter to OCTA. "The transmissions are garbled, scratchy and intermittent. Freeway Service Patrol operators and CHP dispatchers are left to interpret words and phrases, and this creates safety issues and frustration on both ends of the radio."

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