BUS ROUTES LINK CITIES ACROSS VENTURA COUNTY; VISTA SERVICE PASSES ROAD TEST.
Getting there has been easier for Richard Case since a bus service began carrying passengers between far-flung communities across Ventura County.
The Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority gets Case to The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks for shopping and to Moorpark to visit friends. No longer does Case, who is 41 and disabled by epilepsy, have to arrange rides with friends.
``Without VISTA, I'd be up the creek without a paddle. It's a lot more convenient,'' Case said before boarding the East route bus Friday at Madera Road and Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley.
Driver Ron Miller greeted Case, who was accompanied by his mother, Margaret, with a familiar smile. Miller and Case began talking about news of the day as the driver pulled into traffic on Madera and headed the 16-seat converted school bus to downtown Moorpark.
Miller, who has driven transit buses since retiring in 1989 from teaching high school electronics and science, said the 3-year-old VISTA service is a lifeline for a corps of riders who often are disabled, don't drive or rely on bicycles.
``Riders depend on it for certain routines. There is a pattern,'' said Miller, who tries to make riders feel comfortable. ``I like dealing with people. I like helping people.''
After a three-year test primarily supported by federal clean-air funds, VISTA's future appears as bright as the white buses with colorful blue and purple striping, transit officials said.
Ridership on the three routes has increased steadily and now exceeds federal standards to measure the need for a service.
In May, which is the latest ridership tally available, there were 4,873 passengers on the Ventura Freeway route, 2,643 on the East route and 7,097 on the Highway 126 route, according to the transportation commission.
Following a review of whether the service meets an unmet transit need, as required for continued federal funding, the participating cities and the county transportation commission this spring agreed to continue the service.
On Friday, the commission approved contracts totaling $1.18 million for the current fiscal year with operators Antelope Valley Bus Inc. and Santa Barbara Transportation Inc. The federal share is $530,000, ridership pays for $200,000, and the county and eight participating cities pay a combined $450,000, said Ginger Gehrardi, the transportation commission's executive director.
``This is the first year that the agencies will be paying for VISTA as a normal program as opposed to a three-year demonstration,'' Gehrardi noted. ``They're paying a competitive price and minimizing the costs.''
Total local funding was divided among the participating cities based on formulas negotiated by committees reviewing the three routes.
The Ventura Freeway route costs are based on ridership and the number of stops in the county and the cities of Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura. The East route costs are based on the populations of Simi Valley, Moorpark and Thousand Oaks. The Highway 126 route costs are divided equally between the county and the cities of Fillmore and Santa Paula.
Linda Parks, a Thousand Oaks councilwoman on the committee for the Ventura Freeway and East routes, said the service does more than offer an alternative to driving in an effort to improve air quality. She said transportation advocates who turned out for public meetings to review the Ventura Freeway and East routes made a strong case.
``If there's no other way for people to get from one city to another in the county, I think it's our responsibility to provide that service,'' Parks said.
Moorpark College students living in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley are one of the largest group of riders on the East route. Disabled students particularly benefit, with the service boosting their efforts to become more independent.
``It makes you feel more independent, not always having to count on people to take you places. Without the bus service, I wouldn't be on the road to getting my career started,'' said Carlos Luna of Simi Valley.
``I've always had to depend on someone. Now I can just have someone get me ready, and then I can catch the bus,'' he explained. ``Last semester, I relied on it three times a week.''
Shannon Roe can drive despite still suffering from the effects of a childhood stroke, but she doesn't want to buy a car, and the VISTA bus is convenient transportation from Simi Valley.
``I can drive, but this saves money,'' she said. ``For a lot of people, that's their only means of transportation.''
With many cities already providing as much bus and dial-a-ride service as they can afford within their borders, Parks said VISTA also is the most economical way to link the cities.
``To me, it's the most reasonable way to go about it, to have one (system) serve that need instead of all of us dedicating a route,'' she contended. ``And I imagine the better routes you have, the more ridership you have.''
Bill Davis, a Simi Valley councilman and a leading public transportation advocate in Southern California, said VISTA is one of the few bus services that can move a person to any city within an entire county. And riders are moving both east and west, whether going to work, shopping or visiting another area.
``I think that everybody during the course of putting this thing together had some doubts,'' Davis recalled. ``But even the federal government has recognized this program as being outstanding.''
Davis was referring to a recent award VISTA received from the federal Department of Transportation for improving air quality.
The federal government paid 80 percent of operating costs through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program for the three-year pilot.
To keep VISTA operating at a reasonable expense, ridership must continue to pay a minimum of 20 percent on the urban Ventura Freeway and East routes and 10 percent on the Highway 126 route, officials said.
Roe, the Moorpark College student, and Miller, the driver on Friday's East route, said service improvements can help.
``Now there's a lot of people riding it, but there's not enough room for wheelchairs,'' Roe said. ``I have seen my friends in wheelchairs have to be passed up because they don't have room.''
Miller said VISTA sends a second bus within minutes behind the main bus on some routes to make sure riders aren't left waiting too long.
``There have been occasions where they've had to pass wheelchairs. It's also occurred occasionally with bikes,'' Miller said.
For his part, Miller has pushed for a new radio system so drivers can talk with each other rather than rely on dispatchers. Miller said drivers, for instance, could have buses wait at a transfer point for passengers on another route.
``There's still some bugs. It's improving,'' he said. ``If you have happy riders, it makes for happy driving.''
Photo: Margaret Case boards a VISTA bus in Simi Valley, connecting her with Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and other Ventura County cities.
Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News