Ventura Bus Routes Get Slashed

Jasmyne Overton and Randy Harris, both students at Ventura Community College, hurried across the street to their bus stop to catch the usually scheduled 3:36 p.m. bus, but after several minutes, with no bus in sight, they realized it wasn't coming and they would be waiting 45 minutes for the next one.

jasmyneclose.jpg These occasional flaws in the system are not unusual for Ventura County bus riders, said Overton, but starting this week public transit is going to be much more difficult for some riders, causing them to wait a lot longer.

Due to inadequate transportation funding, Gold Coast Transit, the local and intercity bus service for Ojai, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and San Buenaventura reduced its Route 16 service and cut its Route 6 midday services in half on Sunday.

The lack of transportation dollars are a result of factors plaguing not only Ventura County, but also the rest of the economically challenged state. California's current recession has greatly impacted the quarter-cent statewide sales tax that goes to fund all of California's public transit under the Transportation Development Act. In the last two and a half years Ventura County alone has seen a reduction of about 30 percent in TDA funding.

Different from the other Southern California counties, Ventura County is additionally challenged with transportation funding because it lacks a half-cent countywide sales tax (or in the case of Los Angeles county, three different half-cent sales taxes) that the other counties use to help fund public transportation.

"That's the political reality we have to deal with," said Darren Kettle, the Executive Director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission. "So it's a real difficult situation given that we don't have that extra money."

Due to the Budget Trailer Bill recently signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the county will be receiving $4.8 million over the next couple of years from the State Transit Assistance fund, which will contribute to transit operational expenses. A large portion of this money will help pay for the county's Metrolink service, which until earlier this month was in jeopardy of being canceled.

The STA funding is a large reason why all Metrolink trains to west Ventura County weren't cut, said Kettle. But because STA funding is so volatile since the state legislature appropriates it, funding Metrolink could be an issue in the future. Although this would affect all Metrolink members, Ventura County would be in more of a predicament than the other counties because it doesn't have the extra countywide sales tax.

It could ultimately be an issue of bus transit service versus rail transit service, said Kettle.

The question really comes down to, "How are we going to pay for transit not only in Ventura County, but in the United States?" said Kettle. Gas taxes have typically funded transportation in this country, but gas taxes are a dwindling revenue stream for a variety of reasons, such as better fuel efficiency, and hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles.

So it's not just a countywide problem, "it's a nationwide problem," said Gold Coast Transit General Manager, Deborah Linehan, at a transit hall town meeting in Ventura last week.

Although Ventura and Ojai are currently the only cities in Ventura County that have either started or are in the process of instituting a bus reduction plan, more cuts are likely to come, as well as possible fare increases for bus and rail services.

"With the economy already as bad as it is, and some people desperate for public transportation in order to get to and from their jobs, the cuts and increased fares are just enhancing an already difficult time for many people," said Alyssa Thomas, a student at Ventura Community College who relies solely on public transportation.

For cities that have a higher ridership there may be a slight glimmer of hope on the horizon. The Ventura County Transportation Commission, under SB 716, is currently looking to reorganize the county's public transportation system and intends to submit a required consensus bill, outlining the county's new transportation model, by the end of 2011.

As of now, cities that don't use much public transportation are not meeting the state's 20 percent fare box recovery requirement, although they are receiving a fixed amount of funds for operational expenses, said Kettle. The new model would hopefully ensure that areas with higher ridership would receive funds commensurate with transit usage.

"It will be an embarrassment if we do not come up with a good consensus approach because we will have money going to communities to fund transit, but they don't have a transit need," said Kettle. "And that's where we have this disconnect, so hopefully, we're going to be able to get them connected."

But even if the Commission crosses that hurdle, Ventura County's transportation problems are likely not over.

"We still probably don't have enough to meet all the needs out there and to grow transit," said Kettle. "We will never lack for need in most cases in Ventura County, but we will lack for funding."

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