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Orange County Perspective

OCTA Should Go Slowly

June 15, 2003

July 14, 2003, is now the most important date for supporters of the controversial CenterLine project. That's when the Orange County Transportation Authority begins the necessary business of assessing the proposed light-rail line's fate after Irvine voters rejected plans to run a portion of the 11.8-mile system through their city.

OCTA board members who've been pushing hard for years to get the CenterLine project moving undoubtedly will feel pressure to counter the defeat by quickly locating a new route that would pass muster with a clear majority of Orange County residents. But OCTA's board members shouldn't rush into a decision that could come back to haunt.

OCTA must give serious study to all of its options -- truncating CenterLine at John Wayne Airport, developing new bus and rail options or dropping the project altogether. Simply proclaiming a new version of CenterLine as a linchpin in the county's future transportation system is easy; selling that concept to skeptical voters is another thing. A needlessly quick response would feed criticisms that CenterLine is a pork-barrel project that will bleed scarce funding from improved bus service and other alternatives.

OCTA should take its time and parse the mixed message that Irvine voters sent June 4 by rejecting the proposed CenterLine segment -- and also defeating a companion measure that would have banned all future light-rail projects from the city's master plan. It's very possible that OCTA could find a route through Irvine that wouldn't generate opposition, but OCTA also must be able to defend the line as a cost-effective alternative to buying buses and widening freeways.

The vote to keep CenterLine out of Irvine underscored what OCTA knew all along: Federal funding for light-rail projects depends on projects winning local support. Uncle Sam won't allocate limited transportation funds to projects that locals don't want. Remember that opponents elsewhere in the county forced OCTA to scale back the initial, 28-mile CenterLine proposal to run a rail system stretching from Fullerton to Irvine.

That means OCTA must resist pressure to look elsewhere for cities that would accept CenterLine with open arms. Huntington Beach and Brea are among cities that have expressed some level of interest in joining a CenterLine route. But OCTA must prove that there would be enough riders to make the economics work. And, in the past, OCTA has viewed western and northern cities as possible extensions, not the core of the CenterLine route.

It's also possible that the economics won't pencil out no matter what route is chosen because the $38-billion state budget gap is threatening to sap as much as $200 million in anticipated state funding that OCTA hoped to use for CenterLine.

If OCTA does decide to walk away from CenterLine, board members must continue searching for other ways to deal with increased gridlock and air pollution. The intra-county line isn't simply a local issue. Southern California risks losing $8 billion in federal transportation funds over the next eight years if the region fails to make progress on air pollution and traffic congestion.

CenterLine or not, that's a loss the region can't afford to absorb.

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