2017-07-14 / Neighbors

New bus line facing early departure

Low ridership could spell the end of Route 96
By Hector Gonzalez

A state subsidized bus route launched last year to connect workers in Oxnard to jobs in Camarillo could face its last trip by as early as next year unless ridership increases, the county’s transportation chief said.

Less than a year after it starting running last fall, the Oxnard/ Camarillo Employment Connector Service, better known to passengers as Route 96, is in jeopardy because ridership on the 13-mile route is failing to meet expectations.

“If we don’t see the numbers going up by, I’d say, the summer schedule of 2018, we’ll have to do some hard thinking about whether to keep the line,” Darren Kettle, executive director of Ventura County Transportation Commission, told the Camarillo Acorn on July 6.

Route 96 makes seven stops: three in Oxnard and four in Camarillo, including Metrolink’s Camarillo Station, Camarillo Premium Outlets and an industrial park on Flynn Road.

Originally, officials estimated at least 120 Oxnard residents would use the service daily in the first year and anticipated a 3 percent annual growth in ridership after the second year, but that hasn’t materialized so far, Kettle said.

Despite a campaign to publicize the new service, between April and May of this year about 75 passengers made daily round trips on the line, “substantially below” what initial interest from the community seemed to promise for the service, he said.

Local transportation officials started working on developing the new line about a year and a half ago, based on requests the commission received from Oxnard residents and community groups asking for direct bus service between downtown Oxnard and Camarillo’s retail and industrial centers.

“(Route 96) was really tailored to the commute pattern from Oxnard to Camarillo for those somewhat lower-paying jobs that are in the retail sector,” Kettle said. “We’d heard back from community organizations in Oxnard saying this was the desire and was needed. So that’s what we did.”

Using ridership estimates of 120 trips a day, VCTC applied for funding from the state’s Low Carbon Transit Operations Program. LCTOP funds are generated through proceeds from the California Air Resources Board’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

LCTOP provides county transit agencies with money for local projects to reduce emissions and improve mobility “with a priority on serving disadvantaged communities,” according to Caltrans, which is in charge of distributing the funds.

Oxnard, which is considered a disadvantaged community, met the eligibility for LCTOP funding, so VCTC applied to Caltrans and received an $800,440 appropriation.

The county agency used the money to buy a new 57-passenger clean diesel bus and create the route, which began operating in October 2016.

Officials hoped state funding would keep Route 96 running for at least 12 years, according to VCTC’s application for LCTOP funding.

For the summer only, local transit officials added a stop at California State University Channel Islands in a bid to increase ridership on the new route, Kettle said. That resulted in a small boost in passengers but not enough to justify keeping the line running without financial help from the state subsidy.

“We had very high hopes for it, based on all the community input we received,” he said.

Last week, Caltrans announced $34.5 million in new LCTOP funding for 125 local projects, including $325,440 to VCTC to continue the employment connector project.

But the local agency must reapply annually for the funding.

“It is expected that the 13-mile route would continue to be funded annually with LCTOP funds if the route proves successful,” VCTC’s original LCTOP application states.

To make Route 96 successful and increase ridership, a renewed marketing and community outreach campaign will be needed, Kettle said.

“It’s not the numbers that we were expecting,” he said. “It’s a shame, because in Ventura County we don’t have very many communities that qualify as disadvantaged under the state’s guidelines. This was a great opportunity to serve a disadvantaged community that indicated this need. It has not come to fruition at this point.”

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