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CenterLine Rail Tunnel Plan Gains New Life

Urban line could go underground near the South Coast Plaza area. Talks with business owners produce a cheaper, shorter subterranean route.

October 07, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Under pressure from civic leaders in Costa Mesa, Orange County transit officials say they may agree to put the proposed CenterLine light-rail line underground through the South Coast Plaza area -- a compromise that would increase its cost but also help it get off the drawing board.

In another CenterLine related development, officials for the first time have said how many properties along the line would be purchased through condemnation proceedings.

All or part of 483 parcels would be needed for the light-rail line and related widening of Bristol Street in Santa Ana, according to the Orange County Transportation Authority.

The OCTA, following discussions with Costa Mesa officials, is now considering a tunnel that would allow CenterLine to serve one of the county's commercial and cultural hubs.

The area includes key destinations of South Coast Plaza, the South Coast Metro office tower area, South Coast Repertory and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

City Councilwoman Libby Cowan, who helped resurrect the light-rail project last year after the transit agency shelved it for lack of support, said the new thinking is welcome.

"In order to survive, CenterLine would have to be put underground in Costa Mesa," said Cowan. "From our perspective, this is a very positive step."

If built as proposed, CenterLine tracks would go from elevated above street level to underground after turning left onto Sunflower Avenue from Bristol Street.

Tracks would run in a tunnel for less than half a mile under Avenue of the Arts and emerge at street level before turning left on to Anton Street.

OCTA had planned to build an elevated line down Bristol Street that would turn left on Anton before proceeding to other destinations. The route would have had stops at South Coast Plaza and South Coast Metro areas.

In February, OCTA rejected a request by Costa Mesa to have the agency study the feasibility of placing the line underground through the shopping center and adjacent commercial and theater complexes.

OCTA board members said the authority could not afford a $3-million study and that they feared a tunnel would add another $250 million to the cost CenterLine, which now is planned to run 8.5 miles from John Wayne Airport to the train station in Santa Ana.

The request came from a coalition of business and political interests, including C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, which owns South Coast Plaza and other commercial properties; Sakioka Farms, another major property holder; Commonwealth Partners, a developer; the Performing Arts Center; and the South Coast Metro Alliance, a group of business and property owners.

They argued that acquiring rights-of-way for the elevated line through prime commercial property would be expensive.

The group also said the line would seriously detract from the aesthetics of South Coast Plaza and the theater area.

In discussions over the past several months, OCTA agreed to consider a tunnel proposal that is far cheaper and shorter than putting the line under the original route.

The proposed tunnel length of slightly less than a mile has been cut in half. There are no underground stations, and the $250-million additional cost has been cut to about $50 million, according to early estimates.

"I support the potential underground route. We are not going as far or as deep as initially thought," said OCTA board chairman Tim Keenan, who originally pronounced the tunnel idea dead in March due to a lack of support among his colleagues.

The OCTA board cannot vote on the tunnel proposal until after the public gets a chance to comment this month and next on the CenterLine's environmental report.

OCTA officials hope to place the tunnel issue behind them in order to show strong political support for the project, a prerequisite for securing more than $500 million in federal funds, roughly half the project's cost.

Political and community opposition already has reduced the length of the line from 28 miles to 8.5 miles.

Paul Freeman, a spokesman for C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, said the new underground route, if approved, will satisfy the concerns of the Segerstroms and members of the business coalition.

"This is a very different tunnel," Freeman said. "Besides the cost savings, it will provide very convenient service for anyone interested in getting to the area's arts venues."

OCTA and the city of Santa Ana are planning to buy 303 pieces of private property in their entirety and small parts of another 180 parcels, allowing the uses of those parcels to continue. The cost is estimated at about $250 million.

The purchases are contingent upon CenterLine receiving final approval by the OCTA board and the approximately $500 million in federal funds. If the project proceeds, property owners will receive notification next July.

Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream said widening Bristol Street is part of the Bristol Street Redevelopment Project, which has been planned since 1987. CenterLine, which would run down the median of Bristol, will accelerate the planned street improvements by almost 18 years, he said.

So far, the city has acquired more than 100 properties to help widen Bristol in areas that are not part of CenterLine. Improvements between McFadden Avenue and Santa Ana Boulevard are along the light-rail route.

"This will be a continuation of what is already underway," Keenan said.

"Eminent domain is a very touchy subject. But we want to make sure it is a fair process."

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