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California and the West

Orange County Looks South, North for Transit Lessons

Planning: Proposed $1.5-billion light-rail project would take San Diego County's cautious approach, seek to avoid L.A. County pitfalls.


Both the brutal pitfalls and gleaming potential of urban rail can be found in Southern California.

In Los Angeles County, an ambitious subway building project has been staggered by cost overruns and construction fiascoes. In San Diego County, a more modest and far cheaper light-rail system built at a measured pace has become a national model of success.

Now comes Orange County, with hopes of building its own light-rail system.

Four decades after freeways paved the way for explosive suburban growth in Orange County, local leaders will gather today to map the path of a proposed $1.5-billion urban rail line that backers see as a crucial step in the county's evolution into an urban metropolis.

The concept has captured the imagination of traffic-weary residents: A new Times poll shows resounding support for the project, and a modest majority even favors a sales tax hike to pay for it (support, however, that falls well short of the two-thirds needed to pass an initiative).

The plan also enjoys wide support from county leaders, who are already vying with eight other jurisdictions for federal rail funding.

But this public eagerness has not silenced critics who question the wisdom of building the pricey system.

"There are no logical reasons to build this system, and only amateurs think its going to be a [traffic] solution," said Charles Lave, an economics professor at UC Irvine. "No rail system built in the past 20 years has gotten people out of their cars. It's a symbol of things cosmopolitan, it's a dream."

Lave and other doubters point to studies showing that rail siphons its passengers from buses, not cars. They argue that the money earmarked for rail should go instead into sure-thing improvements: wider freeways, better roads, more buses. Urban rail, they say, is nothing more than a shiny, impractical toy.

Advocates, however, insist that the 28-mile rail line linking seven local cities would reshape development in local downtowns, whisk tourists from the airport to Disneyland or ballgames and thin out the crush of commuters on freeways.

"Orange County is changing from being seen as a suburb of Los Angeles, and there's a feeling along with that change that it has to become more cosmopolitan," said Alistair W. Baillie, who leads a team of consultants hired for the project. "With that, you have to provide choices to people on how they travel."

There is no doubt that urban rail holds a romantic allure for the public, even among those who say they would rarely hop aboard. In a Times Orange County poll, 74% of respondents said they support building a local urban rail system, while 53% said they were willing to go along with a half-cent sales tax hike to pay for it.

But how much of the popularity is based on hard fact and how much on a suburb's desire for a lasting symbol of Big City life? The question is especially fitting in Orange County, which has struggled for years to emerge from the shadow of Los Angeles to be viewed as more than a patchwork of conservative bedroom communities.

To Alan C. Wulkan, whose Arizona-based engineering firm has worked on rail systems across North America, the answer is a combination of both. Rail is a huge transportation boon to growing cities, he says, but there's no denying that it serves also as a touchstone.

"This country has had a fascination with rail way before the automobile was around; it was an image of the opening up of the West and opportunity," said the vice president with Parsons, Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas. "When we're young kids, what toy do we get? A miniature railroad set. It's part of our culture. But that doesn't mean it's not a practical thing, too."

Orange County seeks to join a "renaissance of rail" that began in the 1970s with a new breed of mass transit that relies on light rail rather than the old-fashioned subways and streetcars.

Unlike older transit systems, light rail is designed to handle fewer riders and shorter trips with the goal of making urban centers more accessible.

Twenty of the nation's 30 largest metropolitan areas have heavy or light urban rail, and eight others are studying or building new systems. Four new urban rail systems have opened in California in the past two decades, and the two closest to Orange County offer lessons.

L.A. Boasts Rail Success

In Los Angeles County, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has built two light-rail lines and the shortest and most expensive subway system in the nation's history. It now finds itself facing $7 billion in debt after a frenzy of borrowing that began in the 1980s. The debilitating debt has called into question the agency's ability to expand or maintain a creaky bus system that is the second largest in the nation. Critics cite politics and mismanagement as the culprits behind the MTA's woes.

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