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O.C. Doesn't Want to Leave the Suburbs

Irvine turning down a light-rail plan reaffirms a resistance to all things urban, experts say. Last year the county nixed an airport at El Toro.

June 08, 2003|Daniel Yi and Denise Bonilla | Times Staff Writers

Tuesday's vote against a light-rail system is just the latest sign that Orange County clings to its identity as a suburb -- despite, some planning experts say, big-city realities.

Irvine voters rejected their segment of the proposed CenterLine light-rail system, shortening a planned 11.4-mile route that was to run from Santa Ana to Irvine -- and perhaps killed the $1.4-billion project entirely. Like the 2002 countywide vote against an airport at the former El Toro Marine base, the result reflects concerns by many residents that a plan to address regional transportation needs would hurt their quality of life.

"It wouldn't do Irvine any good. We don't need mass transit," said Jim Worrell, 40, who voted against CenterLine.

"We're primarily a white-collar community. It's not like we have a factory somewhere that workers get off at different shifts," Worrell said.

It is the same "wrenching transformation" faced by older Southern California suburbs, said William Fulton, president of Solimar Research Group, a Ventura-based public policy and land-use research firm. For the most part, suburban Southern California is still "low-rise and auto-oriented," he said.

Yet Orange County's population is expected to grow by about 600,000 -- the equivalent of two Anaheims -- in 20 years. Accommodating the commuters is among the challenges facing planners.

Even as they are steadily engulfed by an expanding metropolis, many Orange County residents resist all things urban, including light rail, Fulton said. Others specifically question the transit project's cost, its aesthetic impact on their community and its effectiveness in bringing long-term traffic relief.

There is an ongoing debate among experts whether light rail -- even in urban settings -- is a necessary mode of transportation. Studies show it can be very expensive to build compared with transit buses, and not always cheaper to operate.

The CenterLine project has received mixed reviews from city leaders and constituents since it was proposed six years ago. The route was shortened from 28 to 18 to 11.4 miles with stops from Santa Ana to Irvine and John Wayne Airport -- but it still faced opposition. The Irvine City Council decided to put it before voters, who turned it down 52% to 48%. Transit leaders will meet next month to begin to decide whether to kill the project or pursue a different approach.

Last year, county voters nixed a long-planned commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine base that would have brought more development to the area. Though Los Angeles has launched a last-ditch effort to force construction of a commercial airport on the site, Irvine plans to annex the 4,700-acre base and turn most of it into a park. Richard Taylor, a vice president of the Airport Working Group, which campaigned for a commercial airport at El Toro, called the vote against CenterLine evidence of hypocrisy.

"The argument was we didn't need El Toro because a light-rail system could take people to John Wayne Airport, but now they don't want that either," he said.

"This is one of the most economically vibrant counties in the country and we don't have a regional approach to mass transit, air transportation and planning. Each city looks out for its own best interest."

Irvine voters, however, left the door open to a light-rail system, rejecting another measure that would have stricken references to such systems from the city's general plan. The apparent mixed signals underscore how Orange County is wrestling with its suburban roots and emerging urbanism.

That attitude "tells us something about concerns people have ... about losing all that connotes suburban way of life," said Mark Baldassare, research director at the Public Policy Institute of California.

"There is always a desire to keep things the way they are just a little longer."

Baldassare said he saw similar trepidation among San Francisco Bay Area suburbanites in the early years of Bay Area Rapid Transit, fearing the commuter rail system would deliver the city to their cul-de-sacs.

Indeed, it brought so much development to Contra Costa County that it has been nicknamed Contra Costapolis, said BART spokesman Ron Rodriguez.

The rail system was initially adopted in 1962 by the Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco county boards of supervisors, and financed with the sale of voter-approved bonds.

But mass transit doesn't spur growth so much as it channels development along a manageable route, Rodriguez said.

Without it, "we would have a traffic mess, a complete meltdown.... All those suburban people who say they don't want the city -- well, the farmers before them fought the suburbs too."

The Irvine vote was watched closely throughout the state, Baldassare said, because "Irvine is viewed as the preeminent planned community, and it tells us something about how residents in a such a community feel about changing their suburban landscape."

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