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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Justifying CenterLine Cuts

July 28, 2002

CenterLine, the light rail line that initially was supposed to travel 35 miles from Fullerton to Irvine, is about to shrink again. Just weeks after the proposed length fell to 18 miles, supporters in Irvine proposed a 12-mile line that would run from the Santa Ana Transportation Center to Irvine City Hall. The latest section of track to disappear would have connected City Hall with the municipal transportation center nestled in the Irvine Spectrum.

Word of the shortened route that will go before Irvine City Council on Aug. 13 will create fuel for opponents who hope to torch the light rail system as a "train to nowhere."

Orange County Transportation Authority officials recognize the futility of pushing CenterLine into neighborhoods where residents don't want it. So OCTA is expected to embrace Irvine's proposal to end the line at City Hall. Irvine Mayor Larry Agran explains the decision by saying the train will travel "where it is wanted," which, for now, means City Hall.

In March 2001 the agency backed away from a 34-mile line after acknowledging a glaring lack of public support for the plan. Last spring, OCTA unveiled the new, 18-mile line. OCTA's challenge now is to present a convincing argument for a 12-mile route, or to explore other possible destinations, including UC Irvine and Santa Ana College.

OCTA initially told residents that the 34-mile line made economic sense because it would serve cities that account for more than half of Orange County's workforce and a third of its population.

More recently, OCTA Chief Executive Art Leahy has said that the 18-mile line made sense because the alignment would run within two miles of 500,000 residents and connect business districts and entertainment and transportation centers.

OCTA clearly is betting that neighborhoods with objections will wake up once they see the real thing up and running along the 12-mile route. Agran also believes that Irvine residents and business owners in neighborhoods along the San Diego Creek Channel will drop their opposition after they find out what they're missing.

North County proponents will go a step further, arguing that Irvine will regret its decision not to hook up CenterLine with its transit center because Brea, Cypress and other North County cities that want to jump on CenterLine will be in position to grab available funding.

OCTA has its share of detractors who argue that the agency has never met a mass transit project it didn't like. But it's unfair to paint CenterLine with that broad brush until the agency makes its case.

Clearly the burden is on OCTA to explain why the latest and shortest proposal still makes sense.

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