Orange County transportation leaders Tuesday approved spending $5.5 million to hire a right-of-way consultant to acquire property along the proposed 8.2-mile CenterLine light-rail route in Santa Ana.
The agency has no specific contractor in mind but will put the job out to bid, an action that one transit board member, Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby, criticized as premature.
Norby, who sits on the Orange County Transportation Authority board and is a CenterLine critic, argued that bids should be done after a decision is reached on whether Santa Ana or OCTA is responsible for acquiring property for the light-rail project. The key issues, Norby said, are time, organization and who will manage the land acquisition. "What happens when people don't want to sell their houses and appeal?" Norby said. "Aren't we putting the cart before the horse here?"
At least 480 private properties lie along CenterLine's route, which roughly follows Bristol Street from the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center to John Wayne Airport. The line is scheduled to open by the end of 2009.
Those properties will be acquired, either through voluntary sales or eminent domain, after a consultant is hired by early next year. The consultant would handle title searches, appraisals, relocation plans and right-of-way management.
The transportation authority has projected that all properties will be acquired and ready for construction by the end of 2007.
Revenue to pay for the consultant will come from local gas taxes and Measure M, the sales tax approved by Orange County voters to fund transportation projects.
Transit board member Cassie DeYoung initially challenged the agency's plan to hire the consultant because of the uncertainty of federal support for the project, estimated to cost $900 million.
The federal government is supposed to provide 15% of the funding, but the transportation authority has yet to receive any word from Washington. The authority is competing for funds with transportation projects from across the country.
DeYoung later voted for hiring a consultant.
Norby said he was concerned about potential appeals from homeowners and other property owners. If only 5% of the estimated property owners appealed eminent domain action, 24 hearings would have to be held by either Santa Ana or the authority, he said.
"I just hope those who support CenterLine really know what you are getting into here," Norby said.
The vote was 8 to 2 to hire a consultant, with Norby and Supervisor Bill Campbell dissenting.
A recent poll conducted by the Orange County Business Council showed that 55% of county residents who had an opinion on the CenterLine project support the light-rail project, even though it has been shortened repeatedly because of a lack of political support.