Fixed-route buses in Laguna Woods may return to weekend availability

by in News

LAGUNA WOODS — Marking a sizeable feat for transit patrons, the Golden Rain Foundation Mobility and Vehicles Committee voted unanimously in favor of the seven-day, fixed-route bus system’s return –– the petitioned-for daily service as it was prior to 2018 –– during a special meeting held to discuss weekend-service alternatives on Friday, Aug. 31.

The Golden Rain Foundation will consider the committee’s endorsement of this alternative at an upcoming meeting.

Under this plan, Easy Rider buses would run along the eight-route system from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day –– now including weekends.

The eight buses would run independently of the on-demand, reservation-based Plan-A-Ride program, which operates from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

“Yes, maybe we moved too fast with the Plan-A-Ride new equipment before we got rid of the fixed routes,” Chair Judith Troutman said, when weekends were cut off from the fixed-route system in January. “But I am encouraging staff to try to go at least back to weekends until we could get all this technology worked out.”

December will mark the two year anniversary since the 11-route schedule reduced to the current eight-route schedule, which reportedly reduced costs by $250,000, extended commute times for riders and eliminated part-time, lunch-relief shifts for the drivers.

Plan-A-Ride began as a Sunday-only service in November 2009. Now the four-van fleet averages 300 to 400 riders daily during the week and more than 600 on the weekends, according to a Village Management Services staff report.

A call for a return of weekend fixed-route service is a result, in part, of the 260-signature petition presented at a regular meeting on Aug. 1 and the 100-plus members who filled the room that day. More than 20 approached the podium to speak out against the broken transit system.

“It is a true lifeline for approximate 250 elderly residents who need to get around,” resident Suellen Zima said. “It doesn’t replace any other affordable service within a few miles that is available to us. It will never bring in money. But it is a need.”

Zima shared her Plan-A-Ride experience that left her on hold for more than 15 minutes, causing her tardiness that morning to the meeting. A few others, including Director Bert Moldow, sympathized with similar stories.

“Are there any people left in the transportation department who care that the residents get where they need to go, safely and efficiently?” Zima added.

Though the weekend fixed-route system was unanimously approved for recommendation to the board, residents had no problems pointing out extraneous cracks in the transit system.

Mary Wall said that the petition wasn’t about getting a seven-day system after all; it was about going back to the original 11-route system, while Garry Warren proposed an overhaul on the routes themselves.

“Why are we continuing to say that (the eight-route system) is the best we can do? A Fixed-route is a fixed-route, but it doesn’t have to be the same route we continually go on all of the time,” Warren said. “We want to go where we want to go, not where the buses dictate to us where we have to go.”

Larry Irion noted the inconsistencies between financials, notably the vast difference between the projected $250,000 cost to return to the seven-day, eight-route versus the $1 million cost attributed to the seven-day 11-route system, as stated in a VMS staff report. To this, Director Bert Moldow said that the committee is “struggling” to obtain a financial breakdown as well as total cost just as much as he is.

Maria Lene Wheeler, left, and Pat Labenz visit before the Laguna Woods Village buses depart from Clubhouse One in Laguna Woods, CA on Wednesday afternoon, Dec 13, 2017. (Photo by Ken Steinhardt, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Initially, the alternative option was set to “reduced hours” –– from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. –– but the two-hour extension was amended mid-meeting to be consistent with the weekday schedule. Village Management Services General Services Director Bruce Hartley noted that this change will likely escalate the projected $250,000 cost, which mostly covers operational expenses.

Criticizing logistics behind Plan-A-Ride, Maxine McIntosh spoke of the cognitive difficulties that come with age, echoed by Doris Irion, who added that some of the residents, including herself, “may not remember when it’s Friday.”

Troutman noted that many of the managing staff members come from a background in municipalities, where the 75 years-and-up demographic is not as concentrated as it is in Laguna Woods Village.

“It’s up to us to convince them to see things how we see it,” Troutman said.

Opposite to the bus activists, Marilynn Handleman held Plan-A-Ride in high regard, deeming its front-door accessibility a “lifesaver” as she always had trouble pushing her late husband’s wheelchair over the block-and-a-half distance to the nearest bus route. Recently, she had to give up driving, which was a hard thing to do for her.

“Was I going to be a caged animal?” Handleman said. “Thanks to Plan-A-Ride I can get where I have to go, when I have to go.”

Staff presented four alternatives in the meeting with different variations of Plan-A-Ride and the fixed-route buses –– one that eliminated fixed-routes altogether –– at different price points, all of which would increase the monthly transportation assessment.

“I know that option wouldn’t be popular with the people in this room,” Troutman said in regard to the 100-percent Plan-A-Ride alternative. “But that’s my goal two years from now.”

Director John Frankel, a 25-year resident, humbled the room on the topic of cost sharing. At about $20 to $30 per month, he estimated that he’s paid for a bus system he’s used maybe once –– accrued to about $6,000 to $9,000 over his residency.

“I don’t need it now, but the day is approaching when it will be useful to me and I will need it,” Frankel said. “It’s an expendable type of a system and if it’s going to cost a few more bucks a month, so be it.”

The Mobility and Vehicles Committee’s next regular meeting will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 3 in the Community Center Board Room.