Local News

Thursday, Mar 06 2014 05:40 PM

Under fire, GET returns to drawing board

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    GET buses leave on their routes from the downtown terminal.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Route 81 to Bakersfield College prepares to depart from GET's downtown terminal.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

GET got the message loud and clear.

One day after taking a public drubbing, Golden Empire Transit District officials said Thursday they were busy crafting changes that would upgrade service for Bakersfield's poor, homeless and disabled.

But don't expect a quick fix to Bakersfield's public bus system.

July will be the soonest for any changes benefiting the groups that complained the loudest Wednesday -- BARC, Clinica Sierra Vista and the Bakersfield Homeless Center -- at a joint committee of the City Council and the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

Still unclear Thursday: What changes will be made, and what bus routes will be affected?

"It's going to take a thorough analysis," GET board member Howard Silver said.

With no additional money to spend, he said any improvements will require shifting buses and other resources from one part of the city to another.

"We're going to have to pull service out of other areas," he said. "Money's a big concern."

The changes now under consideration were a direct result of complaints aired at Wednesday's forum, Silver said.

GET spokeswoman Gina Hayden asserted, however, the district was already looking at revising the route system that has upset riders since its introduction in October 2012.

"I would say that we understand" the issues raised by BARC, Clinica and the homeless center, she said, adding that "we were already considering" making changes.

GET's first major bus system revisions in 25 years were intended to achieve three main objectives: reduce crowding on the busiest lines, create more intuitive routes and save up to $1 million a year.

The savings ended up disappearing as GET made concessions to groups of passengers, including disabled riders.

While the revisions trimmed headways on some routes, the shifting of resources forced many riders to walk or navigate wheelchairs a longer distance to the nearest bus stop.

The changes have not gone over well. GET says ridership has slipped significantly, and customer surveys since the overhaul point to a decline in rider satisfaction.

The chorus of discontent only grew Wednesday as leaders of BARC, Clinica and the homeless center took GET to task for transportation hardships faced by their customers.

Not only did they blast changes that make it harder for people to get to their facilities, but they accused GET of doing minimal outreach during the public comment process.

Amid the outcry, county Supervisor Mike Maggard issued a threat involving his board's role in appointing two of GET's five board members.

"I need people we appoint to make this the highest priority," he said at Wednesday's meeting.

On Thursday, GET was still smarting from the claim that it didn't do enough to solicit public input when the route and scheduling changes were under consideration.

"There were numerous opportunities for (city and county officials) to see the draft routes," Hayden said.

County records show there was official outreach, even if the assurances offered ultimately fell short.

On Sept. 11, 2012, GET CEO Karen King delivered a presentation to the county Board of Supervisors outlining the changes to the GET system.

She assured the board -- which was concerned about the impact of the changes on the poor, the disabled and the homeless -- GET was taking aggressive steps to inform people about the changes and help them understand how use the new system.

"I've always said that the most important part of a plan was the implementation of the plan," King said.

"I'm particularly concerned about my constituents who have health issues," Maggard told King at the 2012 meeting. "I just hate to think of someone being left there and find themselves (stuck) for hours."

Then-Supervisor Karen Goh said she was worried about those who don't speak English or are homeless.

King assured her bilingual information and staff were reaching out to riders, and agencies serving the homeless had been contacted.

On Thursday, Silver said he just wants to focus on addressing the concerns raised the day before.

"The important thing to say is that we don't have our heads in the sand, that we're willing to talk to these people," he said.

-- Staff writer James Burger contributed to this report.

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