RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA — It’s four minutes until 6 a.m. and Tim Barnett walks up to a bus stop at the corner of Santa Margarita and Antonio parkways — a backpack slung over his shoulder and a skateboard in tote under his arm.
So begins the daily trek into his Irvine office. Some 40 minutes will elapse between the time he starts his 1.5-mile, skateboard-powered, downhill trip from home to the bus shelter until he gets off the 17-seat mini-bus.
On the average day, Barnett shares the bus with six or seven other commuters. For Barnett, saves the expense of having to buy a second car for his family and offers time to chat and even study a little Spanish.
Officials from the Orange County Transportation Authority, however, looked at the number and saw “low ridership.” Based on a ridership study, they suggested the route — the only one from Rancho Santa Margarita with direct service to the Irvine Transportation Center and Metrolink — be dumped.
After receiving more than a dozen complaints, officials at the transportation agency say they’ve taken those grievances to heart and now are re-thinking that strategy.
On Wednesday, they made public a plan that instead of axing the route, would slice the number of trips in half. Whether the governing board agrees will have to wait until hearings on Monday and Aug. 14.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll approve all these recommendations,” said Mike Greenwood, the OCTA official most familiar with Route 309. But Greenwood said he can’t make any guarantees.
And even if the new recommendation is suggested, it’ll only be for a 6 month evaluation period, beginning Oct. 1, they day the line will stop running if board members don’t agree with Greenwood’s plan.
Fewer trips was one suggestion fellow rider Fred Fisch made on the ride two work one day last week, before the new OCTA recommendation.
Fisch takes the bus from Antonio and Santa Margarita to the Irvine Transportation Center, where he connects to another bus that drops him at his office at Jamboree Road and Main Street in Irvine.
A transplant from Colorado, Fisch said he’s got three cars, but takes the bus because his employer is required to force workers into carpools and onto mass transit. They pay for his annual bus pass to stay in the good graces of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, he said.
According to a report from that agency sent to his company, Fisch said that in a year, he saves $4,000 in auto expenses and keeps 382 pounds of pollutants from entering the Southern California skies.
That will all change, if the latest recommendation to spare part of Route 309 isn’t approved. The alternative route proposed by transportation authority officials won’t do the job, Fisch said, because the earliest run gets him into the office too late.
“One of my goals is to never drive again,” Fisch said, before fully considering the thought. “I shouldn’t say that (but) I lived in Wyoming for too many years to ever appreciate traffic again.
“Out here, people love their cars,” he said.
“They love to sit in traffic,” another rider, Dee Stratton said, finishing the thought in the typical form of the riders’ banter.
Fisch offers a final thought as he exits at 6:33 at the Irvine Transportation Center to catch his transfer: “Unfortunately, we’re all living our lives. I can’t run a one-man crusade (to save the route).
With the bus moving again, Vince Michaels, who started his trip with Fisch and Barnett at 6 a.m., notes the parking lot is near capacity.
Eight minutes later, at the end of the line, Michaels is being dropped at his company’s front door.
“Here I am at Western Digital,” he said with a grin and a wave goodbye.
With the last passenger delivered to work, the driver Sam, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said that since only two drivers work the route, he’s got no time to waste before heading back to the start of the line, at Antonio and Tijeras Creek.
“I’ve got 17 minutes to make it back,” he said as he zips through the El Toro Y. “I can do it in light traffic, but if there’s a problem on the freeway, I windup running 5 minutes late.”
Sam said he’s confident a decision to cut from the route or to eliminate it wouldn’t cost him his job because of seniority. Still, he’s got mixed emotions about losing the only route he’s ever driven in his nearly 2 years with the OCTA.
“Low ridership” is a relative term, he said.
“If you see the 85 come up from Santa Ana … there are people standing in the aisles,” he said. “But, I do think these people have a point. As you get toward the end of the run at Tijeras Creek, you can see how the area’s developing.
“I’m sure OCTA is getting a lot of flack for shutting this route down, and I think they should lend an ear to it,” the driver said, at 6:56 a.m. as he turned onto Antonio from Oso Parkway. “You can see by the cement work here this is intended to be a future bus stop … here’s another future bus stop …”