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Irvine Voters Could Derail CenterLine

Tuesday's election could take the city out of the light-rail project, which would make it difficult -- but not impossible -- for the line to continue.

June 01, 2003|Jean O. Pasco and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

One of the most important transportation decisions for Orange County could be made Tuesday by less than a third of Irvine's voters, many of them casting absentee ballots.

The special election will determine whether Irvine remains part of the planned 11.4-mile CenterLine project, a light-rail line estimated to cost $1.4 billion. Two measures -- one in favor of the project, the other opposed -- are the only questions on the ballot.

At stake is the city's portion of the elevated light-rail line that would stretch from the Santa Ana train terminal, winding through that city's civic center, then to South Coast Plaza, the Irvine Business Complex and John Wayne Airport, ending at UC Irvine.

Rejection at the polls could imperil the entire project, transportation officials have warned.

"If the voters of Irvine turn thumbs down, it's back to the drawing board," said political consultant Frank Wilson of San Juan Capistrano. "The Irvine link is a key segment."

First envisioned six years ago as a light-rail line from Fullerton to Irvine, it has struggled for public acceptance. Several North County cities dropped out in 2000, then Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana officials revived plans for a shorter line last year. The project was snipped even further after Irvine residents protested about seven miles of track that would run through their neighborhoods.

The high stakes have elected officials, transportation advocates and project opponents trying to influence the relatively few voters who hold the cards.

"You have the classic situation of those immediately affected versus a much broader public that sees some general benefit," said Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

The pro-CenterLine effort, led by Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, has spent at least $80,000, campaign statements show. Voters have received most of the pro-CenterLine mailers courtesy of the Safe and Healthy Communities Fund, formed by Agran ally Ed Dornan to fight a commercial airport at the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

The mailers emphasize that the project is supported by elected officials in Irvine and throughout the county. They also have included absentee ballot applications, a critical component to boost turnout for single-issue special elections.

In the most recent special election involving Irvine's 72,000 registered voters, only about 9,700 votes were cast, and 72% of those were absentee ballots, according to election documents. Those results helped send former Assemblyman Bill Campbell to the Board of Supervisors.

"This is a very important election and a very important decision," Agran said. "Absentees will probably be half the votes, but the turnout will probably be better than the Bill Campbell election. I'm guessing 25%-30%. The people of Irvine care a great deal about this issue."

The anti-CenterLine campaign has raised about $7,000, most from former Irvine Councilman Greg Smith. Bill Mavity, treasurer of Fund Alternatives Instead of Rail Transit, said they have tried to reach absentee voters through mailings and a telephone message from Campbell, who opposes the project.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has lobbied hard for the proposal over the years, arguing that it is necessary for the county's transportation future.

Much is at stake for Agran, a longtime supporter of light rail and transit. It is his first major political fight since the battle to kill the airport at El Toro in favor of a large urban park and residential and commercial development.

This time, he favors a large public works project that some see as intrusive, expensive and unnecessary.

His vision includes high-density residential and commercial villages served by light rail, such as the recently proposed Jamboree Corridor, which would include 4,000 homes and two 18-story towers.

Smith said the mayor is trying to change Irvine from suburban to urban, like Los Angeles. "Irvine is not like L.A.," Smith said. "It is not as dense where the transit runs. We are a relatively low-density community. Unless CenterLine serves distant urban centers, light rail won't work in our setting."

Agran disagreed, saying many Irvine residents favor light rail and have accepted luxury high-rises and dense condominium projects approved by the City Council.

"No one is complaining about the quality of life in Irvine," Agran said. "Generally, people want us to get out front in controlling traffic. That is what CenterLine is all about."

Funding would come from the county's half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, hundreds of millions of state and federal tax dollars, as well as $125 million reserved for the city from state rail bonds.

CenterLine has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, the American Assn. of Retired Persons, Transit Advocates of Orange County, the Irvine Chamber of Commerce, the Placentia City Council and about 120 elected officials and community leaders.

Opposing CenterLine are Fund Alternatives Instead of Rail Transit in Irvine, the Republican Central Committee of Orange County and the South Orange County Community College District. A group of 20 to 25 elected officials in the county have asked OCTA to withdraw its support for the project.

"If it fails, there are options -- it might not be totally dead," said Cypress City Councilman Tim Keenan, chairman of the county transportation board. "There is still support around the county for it, north and west. But it would be tough, no question. We would have to seriously reexamine the project."

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