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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

GET passengers board at the downtown terminal to be transported to their various destinations.

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

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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

GET buses leave on their routes from the downtown terminal.

Frustration over changes to Golden Empire Transit District bus routes overflowed during a public forum on transportation and pedestrian safety Wednesday, including from city council members and county supervisors who demanded immediate improvements — or else.

GET officials said routing improvements could be achieved, but only at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars — money the transit agency says it doesn’t have.

Officials with BARC, the Bakersfield Homeless Center and Clinica Sierra Vista said GET officials stripped away bus stops that serve their low-income or developmentally challenged clients.

Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Steve Schilling said they got little input on the plan after it was developed. Once GET had the plan, transit officials refused to change it, he said.

Schilling said his patients are complaining about the need to walk longer distances to get to his services because GET removed bus stops in front of health centers.

Louis Gill of the Bakersfield Homeless Center said his clients take their lives — and those of their children — into their hands because there is no longer a bus stop in front of the shelter.

“We have a lot of families — a lot of strollers — crossing Old Edison Highway,” he said. “Many of our families are coming in the dark trying to get to our facilities.”

“We have 190 people staying with us tonight,” Gill said. “Fourteen of them have access to a car.”

GET officials said they did extensive outreach before changing the routes and asked all of the groups that serve their riders to give input.

The system changes were shared with stakeholders, said GET Marketing Manager Gina Hayden. Changes could have been made before the system took effect.

Kern County Supervisors Mike Maggard and Leticia Perez joined Bakersfield City Councilmen Willie Rivera and Russell Johnson — the four members of the joint committee that hosted the meeting — in calling for changes to be made now.

While GET is governed by its own independent board, members of that board are appointed by the city and county. And the new safety committee made it clear Wednesday that if GET doesn’t change, the county and city will change the leadership of the organization.

GET has five board members. Kathleen Ashland and Annazetta Henderson represent the county, while Howard Silver and Norris Ledbetter represent Bakersfield. Patricia Norris is an at-large representative.

“I need people we appoint to make this the highest priority,” Maggard said.

He related the story of a BARC client named David traumatized by the change.

“The goal in their life is to be independent. The key to David being independent is being confident,” Maggard said.

David used the GET buses to get from his home to BARC, Maggard said, but the change in bus stops confused him and he didn’t get off the bus.

“He got lost on the bus for five hours that day. He got home at 8 p.m. He was terrified. His family was terrified,” Maggard said. “David doesn’t ride the bus anymore. David isn’t independent anymore.”

Hayden said the route changes can be made. But they involve adding buses. That will cost GET about $700,000, she said.

Silver, a longtime GET governing board member, said the bus company does want to provide great service.

“I would love to see everyone in this community served,” he said. “All it takes is money. We don’t have that money — in fact our money is being cut back. These changes were not made haphazardly. We do care.”

GET made the changes — its first major set of revisions in 25 years — in October 2012 in an effort to improve service on chronically overcrowded lines, particularly those serving Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield. The idea was to move away from a hub-oriented system to one that was more grid-like.

In some cases, headways were reduced from a bus coming every half hour to one about every 15 minutes.

But achieving that goal required shifting resources away from lesser-used routes in the Oildale area and suburban, car-reliant areas.

Routes through some residential neighborhoods were shortened or redirected, and many stops were eliminated altogether, forcing passengers in many cases to walk farther to catch a bus.

Originally, the plan was expected to save about $1 million, or about 5 percent of GET's budget. But route concessions made to disabled passengers ended up erasing any savings.

The most recent passenger satisfaction survey, from last spring, documented considerable discontent. More than half of those surveyed reported having been "negatively affected" by the rollout.
— Staff writer John Cox contributed to this story.