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THE REGION

O.C. bus riders could face fare hike, terminal closure

County transportation officials meet Monday to discuss higher rates and closing the Santa Ana transit center.

October 26, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Esquivel is a Times staff writer.

On a Southern California fall afternoon, with temperatures reaching into the 90s, dozens of travelers took refuge under the tall ceiling of the Santa Ana transit terminal.

Maria Salazar, 29, rested on a concrete bench, waiting to go home.

Earlier this month, her boss cut back her hours at the preschool where she works as an assistant, and she was forced to sell her car. She bought a monthly bus pass for $45 and now takes public transportation every day from her home in Costa Mesa to Santa Ana College for English classes. On days when she can get the hours, it's two additional buses to the preschool.

Like many at the transit center -- which serves thousands of bus riders every day -- Salazar was unaware of the double whammy Orange County bus riders face when local transit officials meet Monday.

In addition to closing the popular Santa Ana bus terminal, across the street from the county courthouse and other civic buildings, the Orange County Transportation Authority will consider hiking fares for the first time in four years. The cost of one ride would increase from $1.25 to $1.50 and a day pass from $3 to $4; monthly passes would go from $45 to $55. Other fares, such as those for seniors and people with disabilities, would also rise.

OCTA officials say the hike is necessary to cover increased healthcare and pension costs, high fuel expenses and reduced state funds for transportation. The terminal closure, they say, is necessary because the agency can't afford necessary safety upgrades.

Arthur T. Leahy, chief executive of the transit agency, said that without fare increases, bus riders would face further cuts in service. The agency is already planning to cut the frequency of buses on six routes.

"Without it, we would have a several million dollar shortfall in the budget of the OCTA bus system," he said.

The increases are expected to bring in about $4 million a year.

Critics counter that the proposed increases come at the worst possible time for riders already struggling with dire economic straits.

"It's going to affect the people who can afford it the least," said Jane Reifer of the OCTA's Citizens Advisory Committee.

Leahy, however, points out that at two previous public hearings on the rate increase, only a couple of people showed up and their reactions were mixed.

As for the terminal, he said, it must be closed for safety. The terminal lacks adequate ventilation for the county's new buses, which run on natural gas, Leahy said.

Closing the terminal will actually benefit riders, he added. The site is two blocks off Main Street, which diverts most riders from their routes, he said. "By not having the bus go through all those detours, we speed up service."

Riders at the terminal, though, said they appreciate the expansive shelter, its shaded benches and restrooms.

Inside the open-air terminal, a woman sells hot dogs, sodas and snacks. Outside, a mural depicts centuries of Orange County history.

Gerardo Gonzalez, who retired recently after years of working as a baker, stood, his back to a concrete wall, reading a small book in Spanish called "The Gunwoman." He was wearing a crisp black dress shirt, worn jeans and a gold crucifix around his neck.

He said he takes the bus from Costa Mesa to the terminal every day.

He sits on benches and reads, has a cup of coffee at nearby restaurants and eats lunch -- usually a hot dog or a taco -- from local vendors.

He knows a few people who frequent the terminal, but that is not why he comes. He comes because it is like a park in the middle of the city.

If he didn't venture there, he said, "I'd just be at home, watching TV or listening to the radio."

Nearby, Salazar contemplated the fare increases, which would boost the cost of her monthly pass by $10. "In these times?" she said. "It's almost inhumane.

"Maybe you don't think $10 is a lot of money, but I can buy food for two days with that."

The OCTA meeting will be held at 9 a.m. Monday at agency headquarters, 600 S. Main St., Orange.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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