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Does this transit elbow out the masses?

November 06, 2005|Caitlin Liu | Caitlin Liu covers transportation for The Times. She can be reached at Caitlin.liu@latimes.com.

THE METRO Orange Line busway opened in the San Fernando Valley last weekend amid much political grandstanding and media hullabaloo. Transportation officials call the new transitway a shortcut across the Valley, and they liken the buses to trains on tires.

The designers have incorporated rail-like amenities into the sleek vehicles and the $324-million corridor on which they roll between Woodland Hills and North Hollywood. They painted the extra-long buses silver to mimic metallic train cars. They made sure the stops resemble full-service rail stations, with canopies, ticket-vending machines and digital displays to announce the next vehicle's arrival time.

To make the corridor attractive, they spent $20 million on an irrigation system and 800,000 plants, including sycamores, torrey pines, deergrass, rosemary, fortnight lilies and lavender, to spruce up the 14-mile route. Five park-and-ride lots, offering 3,200 spaces, have opened along the busway. They even took the Orange Line's moniker, a tribute to the region's once-abundant citrus groves, from a slice of the rainbow -- a distinction normally bestowed on the MTA's subway and light-rail lines.

The Orange Line's un-buslike look and feel are all part of a strategy by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to make the line more appealing to those who normally don't use mass transit and to lure commuters out of cars. But the MTA's outreach to the so-called choice riders -- the Angelenos for whom taking a bus or train is not a need but an option -- comes at a price in a time when the agency is already strapped for funds. And the choices made in building and financing the Orange Line could ultimately end up alienating the MTA's core constituents: the region's masses of transit-dependent poor who rely mostly on buses to get around.

The Orange Line works as a trunk line, a major mass-transit route, says Hiroyuki Iseki, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. "That's good for commuters," he said, "but it may not fit into the travel patterns of other people, particularly low-income people. It is designed to serve discretionary riders rather than the transit dependent."

In L.A. County, buses are the mass-transit workhorses. While subway and light-rail trains report about 240,000 passenger boardings on an average weekday, the thousands of buses roaming Southland streets and freeways every day transport 1.3 million riders.

Ridership on the Orange Line, which has been about 11,000 boardings a day, is projected to climb to about 22,000 in 15 years. To pay for the busway, the MTA cut about 60,000 service hours from low-ridership lines countywide and shifted them to the Orange Line and buses that connect to the corridor. Each service hour represents about $100 in costs, including labor, fuel, repairs and maintenance.

James E. Moore II, director of the Transportation Engineering Program at USC, applauds the MTA for trying to be more efficient. Public transit, he says, is "a wealth transfer," meant to provide "a minimal amount of mobility" for people who have no way to get around. But today people also expect mass transit to keep cars off freeways. "These are two fundamentally different objectives that are often in opposition. There are going to be some winners and losers."

The winners, transit experts and advocate say, are commuters and riders who live or work near the Orange Line. The losers are the transit dependent who do neither. For them, a truncated bus route means having to transfer more often. Reduced service frequency means some riders must wait longer -- sometimes for hours. When bus service is patchy or infrequent, the transit dependent say, their world shrinks. They stay home rather than visiting friends, getting medical care or traveling to jobs.

Alice Jones, a 49-year-old disabled computer operator, had been taking a single bus, Line 156, from her Van Nuys home to the North Hollywood Red Line subway station. But when the Orange Line opened, the MTA shortened the 156 route. She now has to take two buses, including a transfer onto the Orange Line, to get to the subway. "It doesn't help people -- the elderly, the disabled -- to have to get on one bus and get off another," she said.

Although riders such as Jones are a captive audience and have no choice but to continue using mass transit, others say they're fed up. And if their frustration is an indication of backlash to come, they could do what the MTA has been trying to discourage: Add congestion to freeways.

At a North Hills street corner one recent morning, Aurelio Aguirre, a 21-year-old temp who lives in San Fernando, stood with a briefcase, waiting for more than an hour for a bus to take him to a Northridge job site -- unaware that midday service on Line 168 has been eliminated to free resources for the Orange Line. Aguirre has ridden buses his whole life. But now he's had enough.

"I'm saving money," Aguirre said as he walked away, "to buy a car."

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