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OCTA Needs a Battle Plan

June 09, 2002

CenterLine proponents got a boost late in May when an independent study suggested that the controversial light rail system would create more than 29,000 jobs and pump $3.2 billion into the local economy. Of course, the county would have to spend considerable seed money--$1.5 billion in capital costs and $625 million for operating and maintenance costs--to generate that return. But the rosy prediction prompted Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who doubles as chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, to praise CenterLine as "not just a transportation project. It is an economic engine."

A final vote on the scaled-back 18-mile line that would run through Irvine, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa won't come for more than a year. There were solid reasons why the original CenterLine proposal stalled. Despite the hundreds of informational meetings, extensive mailings and surveying work, OCTA failed to develop a consensus on the need for the costly public works project. The challenge will be to make a more persuasive case this time or abandon the project once and for all.

Opponents last time scored points because OCTA in effect said "trust us" instead of sitting down with residents and effectively countering charges that CenterLine would divide communities, generate pollution, create safety hazards and, in the end, do little to relieve jammed highways. All along, there have been questions about how the project would pencil out. If the long, costly and frustrating battle over the closed El Toro Marine base proved anything, it was that really big ideas must be thoroughly debated before a take- it-or-leave-it proposal is handed to the people.

The economic report from Cal State Fullerton effectively marks CenterLine's return to the political spotlight. The rail line was mothballed early last year after it became apparent that OCTA lacked support for a controversial proposal to build a longer (35 miles) and more expensive ($2.3 billion) line that would have extended through Orange, Anaheim and Fullerton.

Now, even CenterLine supporters recognize that the light rail system must be sold more on what it will mean for individual residents than on macro economic factors.

If CenterLine makes economic sense, the rail system could be an important element in a public transportation battle plan that also must include buses, vans and continued improvements to the county's freeways. But that's a big "if."

At the same time, those who would rather have OCTA limit its projects to highway improvements must recognize that the agency's charge is to get people, not just automobiles, moving. OCTA, meanwhile, must continue taking steps to ensure that public transportation across the board is improved.

Rail lines draw heat because they're inherently expensive. Last year, OCTA sent scouts to determine how Denver and Dallas secured public support for rail lines. OCTA might also consider visiting Pasadena, where the 14-mile Gold Line that runs to downtown Los Angeles is scheduled to begin service in July 2003.

OCTA must tell residents how the "CenterLine Lite" project will improve the transportation picture. The agency should start by explaining why residents should support a scaled-down version. A year ago, OCTA argued that the 35-mile line made sense because it would run through cities that house more than half of the county's work force and a third of its population. Opponents surely are going to question the shorter line's economics, so OCTA had best have the answers ready this time.

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