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Hundreds of bus commuters rebel
This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press December 10, 1998.

Valley Press Staff Writer


PALMDALE - Commuters on an Antelope Valley Transit Authority busline to Los Angeles are upset with what they contend are poor service, unsanitary restrooms, constant mechanical failures and unresponsive bus executives. A formal complaint signed by nearly 300 disgruntled bus riders was sent to the mayors of Lancaster and Palmdale, and Los Angeles County 5th District Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich earlier in the week.

The complaint calls for improvements in "route planning, resource deployment, and overall customer service."

The final straw, the riders say, occurred after a decision to cut back on bus service the day before Thanksgiving left several commuters without transportation.

A similar incident occurred on Dec. 2, also on Route 785, from Lancaster and Palmdale to Los Angeles, when riders were temporarily left without transportation.

"Last week was the breaking point for me," said Lisa Sanchez, who works for a public relations firm in Los Angeles.

Sanchez, who said she's been an AVTA commuter for three years, rides the 5:35 a.m. bus along with 50 to 60 others.

On Wednesday, Nov. 25, she and others were forced to drive their own cars to work because the AVTA miscalculated the number of passengers that would be riding during the holidays, Sanchez said.

Steve Navarro, a service representative for the AVTA, said bus service on holidays is regularly reduced because ridership tends to be much lower then.

This year, Navarro said, an additional bus was placed on every run to account for any increase in holiday bus traffic, but it was not enough, so a commuter bus was dispatched to accommodate the passengers who were left behind.

On Dec. 2, Navarro said, they placed the double decker bus - which carries nearly twice the passengers as a normal commuter bus - on the wrong run.

Passengers were made to wait, Navarro said, but they were eventually picked up by another bus.

Navarro believes the trouble can be solved by improving communications.

On Wednesday, Navarro met with passengers before boarding morning commuter buses, to better establish lines of communication.

He said he gave all riders on Route 785 his business card with his direct phone line and e-mail address.

Navarro said the request he heard most often Wednesday was for additional service, which is something he intends to look into.

The AVTA plans to begin meeting on Saturdays, every other month, to discuss concerns with any commuters who wish to attend the meetings.

According to him, the AVTA is distributing surveys to passengers on all routes asking for suggestions for improvements.

On Nov. 11, the AVTA invited passengers from Route 785 to attend a meeting regarding their concerns, but only 14 people attended, he said.

Plans are also under way to inform riders in advance of what's occurring on their routes by posting schedule changes at park and ride lots, he said.

But Sanchez and other riders say the recent incidents are not isolated and are indicative of poor management of the bus system.

Julia Hoskins, who works at the courthouse in Los Angeles, said she's been inconvenienced by scheduling problems before.

Buses are often late, and bathrooms are unsanitary, she added.

Because there's a high turnover in bus drivers, Hoskins said, there's frequently a new driver on her route.

These new drivers tend to get lost, making commuters late for work, she said.

"Friday we were halfway to Pasadena," she said, referring to a Dec. 4 bus ride with a destination in Los Angeles.

The driver apparently took the 110 freeway northbound when, instead, he was supposed to exit on Broadway Street off the Interstate 5, in Los Angeles.

Passengers were sleeping, Hoskins said, so when they woke up they were not in downtown L.A. as they expected to be.

Bill Bangs, who works for the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles, also takes the bus to work daily.

"I think the commuter service, at least from the AV to L.A. and return, has deteriorated," he said.

Bangs said he's written complaints to Antonovich's office about poor maintenance practices and the lack of cleanliness on buses, but he's received no response.

Bangs also said the toilets on the bus often become clogged up and overflow.

"On a couple of different occasions the stench in the bus was unbearable because of the toilets," he said.

Bangs claims the buses break down often. He said he's confronted drivers about the condition of the buses and they've told him that requests for repairs have been sent to AVTA executives, and have yet to be performed.

"There needs to be better communication between the AVTA and the passengers," he said. "It's degrading to the point where it's becoming frustrating to everybody. There need to be better management decisions made in that organization."

As for the restroom problem, Navarro said, the AVTA has purchased 17 new stainless steel toilets for commuter buses.

The old toilets use a chemical trap system, Navarro said. The new ones employ a fresh water system, which will make everything more hygienic and reduce foul odors.

"Unfortunately (riders) don't understand that it takes a while for the process to begin," Navarro said. "We are trying to be as open as possible with them."

He believes most of the complaints came about because of the incident on the day before Thanksgiving, and that most passengers are satisfied, Navarro said.

Not Sanchez.

"Over the last three years, I've spent over $6,000 on transportation," she said.

Buses are always dirty, windows are greasy, and floors are sticky, she said.

"I don't dare go into the bathrooms," she said. "They don't clean them."

Jacquline Cumberbatch-Exeart works at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles.

Her company subsidizes her commute with $102 per month.

Riders on Route 785 pay $155 per month for a pass.

When she has called with a complaint, Cumberbatch-Exeart said, bus executives have treated the matter nonchalantly.

"They already know that the problems exist, but they don't want to do anything about it," she said. "It's poor customer service."

When she lived in Los Angeles and took MTA buses to work, she rarely had a problem, Cumberbatch-Exeart said.

Laurie Brown is a legal secretary; her comments about AVTA bus service were harsh:

"It's terrible; it's one of the worst experiences of your life," she said.

She called the buses filthy and said hand-wipes for the bathroom were seldom available.

"The toilets become so backed up that it stinks through the whole bus," she said. "The fumes are really intoxicating."

Because her route has a new driver who doesn't know the area, she said, the bus has been late for the past two weeks.

She said she's been on buses that have broken down during the past summer at least five times from overheating.

"They charge us $155 for lousy service, and they don't want to do anything to amend it or fix it," she said.

Bus passenger Nathan Wood said on a recent trip to L.A., he awoke as the bus was going through a patch of fog and noticed the bus driver cleaning the windshield with his hand. The wiper blade wasn't working.

When he got to the Lancaster park and ride, he found a supervisor and told him about the problem, and was told that the windshield wiper problem was a common occurrence when they're airdriven.

When Wood said he would file a complaint, the supervisor told him, " `Do what you damn well please,' " Wood said. "When they mess with my safety, I'm not going to put up with that at all."

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1998 Antelope Valley Press, Palmdale, California, USA