January 31, 2006  -  

Dull spotlights are interrupting darkness along Orange County streets.

And so are flashing lights.

The Orange County Transportation Authority is installing solar-powered lights at its bus stops to increase passengers’ comfort and make it easier for coach operators to spot them at night.

Last year, 300 were installed. Another 45 went up this month. The OCTA is poised to order 365 more. As soon as later this year, the agency expects to finish the push with the last 700.

“The biggest reason is so that they can feel comfortable and so the bus drivers can see them,” Ryan Erickson, OCTA’s facilities maintenance manager, says of the bus riders. “I don’t think it’s a safety or security issue. Sometimes it is so dark they can’t even read the bus information.”

Here’s what the OCTA gets for $600: A light attached to the bus-sign post that casts a dim glow for the rider to stand in. And a separate, small light that flashes to alert bus drivers who generally skip stops where they believe no one is waiting.

Each light is activated by a button on the pole.

“Although the rare bus stop had a solar-powered light in the early 1990s, technology has led to more communities getting them in the last three years,” says David Davies, a spokesman for Canada-based Carmanah Technologies Corp., which produces bus lights for the county and many other communities.

No longer are large solar panels required, and white LEDs need little maintenance.

“There wasn’t a solution before. Now, there is,” Davies says.

A Chicago suburb, Atlanta, London, Long Beach and Los Angeles County are among the spots with at least some solar-powered bus stops or bus shelters.

La Palma Avenue and East Street in Anaheim gets quite dark, especially at the bus stop next to a fenced-off lot.

A woman with a pink shoulder bag pads over to the stop, presses the button to cast a glow onto her, hits the other button to alert the driver and nervously waits.

“It’s helpful – this place is not lighted,” says Helen Nacano, 61, a kindergarten teacher, before stepping into the bus.

Others like the new lights, too.

Stephen Smith, 49, has a monthly bus pass and is thrilled by the driver-alert light but not by the soft spotlight, which he says isn’t strong enough.

“The flashing ones, I think they are perfect,” says the Westminster resident, who has missed a bus or two because the driver didn’t see him. “They shine. Now, the stationary lights, they are not worth anything.”

Freshman Jeanne Rush takes the bus to Cypress High and to see friends. She is comfortable waiting for buses in the dark so the spotlight isn’t important to her, but she likes the flashing lights.

“If you push them, the bus driver can see someone is there,” the 16-year-old says.

OCTA’s Erickson says the light systems must balance the amount of power they collect and the brightness of the lights.

So far, he has not heard of any of them running out of power before being recharged by the sun.

Many of the lights already up are on the OCTA’s four Night Owl routes, which run around the clock. Most other routes run from about 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The OCTA is placing the lights at poorly lit bus stops on highly traveled routes.

Statistically, bus stops are quite safe – 67 incident reports were taken by the OCTA in 2005, mostly for alcohol and drug possession. There was one purse-snatching and a sexual-harassment allegation.

“Any area that’s lit is going to be a detriment to criminal activity,” says Lt. James Rudy of the Sheriff’s Department, who oversees patrols of the bus line. “And most of us, we don’t like being in a dark area.”

Bus driver Barbara Weary is a fan of the lights. For one thing, the flashers give her enough warning to turn on the signals and safely pull over to the road’s side.

In the year she has driven for OCTA, she isn’t aware of missing any passengers she didn’t see.

But would she even know?

“If you don’t see them and they are sitting down, I would zoom past them,” Weary says.