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O.C.'s Train Didn't Come In

CenterLine's defeat in Irvine forces transit officials to rethink the light-rail proposal. Bus and highway options are also being studied.

June 05, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

After the defeat of CenterLine at the polls in Irvine, Orange County transit officials said Wednesday that they will begin a major reevaluation of the proposed $1.4-billion light-rail project to determine if it can be salvaged.

"We need to take a hard look at CenterLine," said Laguna Niguel City Councilwoman Cathryn De Young, who sits on the Orange County Transportation Authority board. "Can we afford light rail? Does the community really want it?"

Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive, has asked his staff to prepare options for the project, which has been buffeted by controversy and shortened from 28 miles to 11.4 miles over the years, and realigned on some stretches because of community opposition from Fullerton to Irvine.

Possibilities include canceling the line, shortening the route even more and shifting OCTA's priorities to other rail and bus projects. Board members are scheduled to begin discussions July 14.

"While it is too early yet to discern all the implications of the vote, it clearly requires that we reexamine our approach," Leahy said in a prepared statement. "Now is the time for some thoughtful reflection and careful assessment before determining our next move."

CenterLine, which was planned for Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, suffered a serious setback during a special election Tuesday in Irvine.

Voters rejected Measure A, a City Council-backed initiative that asked whether a leg of CenterLine should be built in Irvine from John Wayne Airport to UC Irvine.

Also defeated was Measure B, which would have stripped not only CenterLine from the general plan, but all references to light rail.

"This was a decisive vote, considering the pro-CenterLine folks outspent the anti-CenterLine folks 10 to 1," said Chris Norby, a county supervisor and OCTA board member who opposes the project.

"We now have a tremendous opportunity to look at better alternatives for the money and time," Norby said.

The defeat of CenterLine in Irvine, Norby predicted, will weaken its support among a majority of the OCTA board, which has acted at times as if the project were a fait accompli, he said.

Rather than light rail, Norby and other board members say they would like to explore highway improvements, expanded bus service and a greater reliance within Orange County on commuter rail service, such as Metrolink.

One priority for Norby and Supervisor Bill Campbell is extending the Orange Freeway from the notorious Orange Crush to the San Diego Freeway along the Santa Ana River channel.

"I believe CenterLine should be canceled and replaced with some other kind of creative transit project," said Campbell, a newcomer to the board who has opposed light rail.

Some members are concerned that CenterLine may no longer be economically feasible with a $38-billion state budget gap threatening transportation funding across California.

Orange County faces the loss of more than $200 million in state funds for various projects, including expansion of the Garden Grove Freeway. OCTA also was planning to ask the state for more than $200 million for CenterLine.

"My real concern is that we are in a situation where we might lose our state funding. If so, will we be able to do CenterLine?" De Young asked. "We need to take a long-range financial look."

The electoral defeat may also affect OCTA's ability to secure up to $600 million for the line from the Federal Transit Administration, which generally requires political support as a prerequisite for funding projects.

OCTA officials had hoped for a favorable outcome to give them leverage in the application process.

Municipalities in western and northern Orange County have expressed interest in participating in the line, but they have generally been considered for possible extensions, not as the core route. Whether OCTA can get their participation in time to keep the project viable remains to be seen.

But regional planners say that if the obstacles cannot be overcome and CenterLine is shelved, something must replace it to keep the area in compliance with federal requirements to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion.

Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, said the regional transportation plan has been counting on CenterLine, as well as other projects, to help meet deadlines imposed under federal air quality regulations.

If the requirements are not met due to cuts in state funding or other reasons, Pisano says that six Southland counties, including Orange County, could lose up to $8 billion in federal transportation funds over the next six years.

"Something needs to be done," said Greg Winterbottom, an OCTA board member from Villa Park. "We've got increasing gridlock and a rail component in Measure M," the county's half-cent sales tax that funds transportation projects. "It's going to be an interesting situation, no doubt."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

At the polls

A -- Irvine ordinance to support CenterLine

Less than a quarter of Irvine's 77,000 registered voters cast ballots on two light-rail measures. They turned down a plan to build part of the $1.4-billion CenterLine project through their city. But they also rejected a second measure to remove proposed light-rail lines from the city's general plan.

*--* Vote Count Percentage Yes 8,185 47.6% No 9,026 52.4%

*--*

B -- Irvine ordinance to strip light rail from the general plan

*--* Vote Count Percentage Yes 8,081 48.0% No 8,749 52.0%

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Sources: Orange County

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