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Irvine Voters to Decide if CenterLine Stays on Track

Transportation: Council approves a citywide election on a shortened version of the light-rail line.


A decision late Tuesday by Irvine's City Council to submit a portion of the CenterLine light-rail plan to voters creates a new threat to the entire project, transportation officials said.

Arthur Leahy, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said a rejection of the project in Irvine probably would force a reevaluation of the rail line to determine if it still made "transportation sense." OCTA is the lead agency behind the $1.1-billion project.

The vote came after a five-hour debate over the rail line, which--as currently envisioned--would run 11.4 miles from the front steps of UC Irvine to the Santa Ana train station with stops at the Irvine Business Complex, John Wayne Airport, South Coast Plaza and the Santa Ana Civic Center.

Council members approved the route, shortened by more than six miles from an earlier plan to avoid Irvine neighborhoods where many residents oppose CenterLine. Shortening the line eliminates the Irvine Spectrum commercial area and the Irvine Transportation Center, a major bus and rail hub, as the southern terminus of the system.

But the council, which is facing an initiative drive against the project, also agreed to hold a citywide election on the project before June 30. Should voters disapprove, CenterLine could not enter the city.

"We welcome a vote on the matter," said Mayor Larry Agran, a CenterLine backer who is running for reelection in November. "We want to allow the fullest public participation in the final decision."

OCTA officials estimate the line will carry almost 31,000 passengers a day during its first year. Preliminary engineering studies are underway, but a final decision on whether the line will be built is at least a year away.

Tuesday's action finalizes the proposed alignment for the project and allows OCTA to meet a Sept. 16 deadline to apply for at least $500 million in federal funds. The authority's board approved the truncated route Monday.

Agran and council members Mike Ward, Chris Mears and Beth Krom approved the revised line and the special election. Councilman Greg Smith, an opponent of the rail proposal, cast the only dissenting vote.

Few people are going to ride CenterLine, said Smith, predicting the line will eventually be extended to the Irvine Spectrum along a route that will affect neighborhoods.

"There has been a lot of talk about providing choice, but no one is going to choose this," Smith said. "Light rail may work elsewhere, but it is not going to work here."

A second ballot measure approved by the council asks if any expansion of CenterLine in Irvine should be submitted to voters.

The ballot measures will incorporate ideas from an initiative proposed by Fund Alternatives Instead of Rail Transit, an anti-CenterLine group based in Irvine. The group began gathering signatures over the weekend to qualify its own measure for a possible March election. The measure would block construction of CenterLine in Irvine and strip all references to light rail from the city's general plan.

John Kleinpeter, the group's chairman, criticized the council decision, saying it was an attempt to defuse his group's initiative campaign and confuse voters by placing two CenterLine measures on the ballot.

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