Orange County's controversial CenterLine light-rail project was rescued again by transportation leaders Monday, who voted in favor of pursuing an eight-mile track -- a fraction of the original plan to lay rail from one end of the county to the other.
The Orange County Transportation Authority's 9-2 vote calls for a route that would wind from John Wayne Airport to the Santa Ana train depot, passing South Coast Plaza and the county Civic Center along the way.
The decision follows a setback last month, when Irvine residents voted to block the line from pushing through to UC Irvine, an action that CenterLine critics believed would be a final blow to light rail in Orange County.
"It's cheaper if it happens now than 10, 15 years down the line," said County Supervisor Jim Silva, an OCTA board member. "CenterLine won't solve the transportation problems in Orange County, but it's a part of the solution."
Board member Shirley McCracken agreed: "Now is the time. We have to have a bigger vision for our future."
About 70 people spoke at the five-hour hearing, during which the transit board weighed a range of options, such as extending bus service and Metrolink, or killing CenterLine outright.
The proposed CenterLine route has shriveled as political and business support has withered over the years, particularly in north Orange County. The route approved Monday already has bumps ahead.
Permission must be won from the Board of Supervisors to terminate the route at county-owned John Wayne Airport and a major developer, C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, has expressed concerns with the redrawn line.
In support of the route were Santa Ana College students who complained of long bus commutes and a lack of parking spaces, and labor leaders who said the county will continue to bleed thousands of jobs in the Inland Empire because workers and employers are frustrated with freeway traffic.
Board members Chris Norby and Bill Campbell, who cast the two dissenting votes, have expressed their opposition to light rail in favor of extending the Orange Freeway from the Orange Crush to the San Diego Freeway along the Santa Ana River channel.
The agency will now apply for federal funding before an August deadline. An environmental impact report is expected to be completed by early fall.
OCTA estimates the line would cost $900 million to $1 billion to build.
Daily boardings are projected to be 15,000 to 20,000 during the first year of operation.
Staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.