Transportation officials rejected a proposal last week to let Orange County voters have a say in whether to move forward with the controversial CenterLine project -- a $1-billion light rail system that would connect neighboring cities.
The advisory measure would have appeared on the November ballot. But on a 5-4 vote Friday, the Orange County Transportation Authority board killed the idea.
Board member Miguel A. Pulido, a supporter of the rail line, led the opposition, arguing that a ballot measure would be an unwise gamble because voters would probably reject the project.
"It would be a terrible mistake.... By voting to put it on the ballot, we kill the project," said Pulido, who is the mayor of Santa Ana.
He suggested that voters who would not benefit from CenterLine -- which would connect downtown Santa Ana to John Wayne Airport -- might not appreciate its values and vote against it.
The proposed rail line has been a source of friction for years. Originally envisioned as running through the heart of the county, passing near Disneyland and Anaheim's sports venues, the project has steadily shrunk. It now would run from the area of county government buildings in Santa Ana through the South Coast Metro district in Costa Mesa, ending near the airport.
The project's cost is estimated at $1 billion, with $500 million expected to come from Washington.
However, it was the current lack of federal funding that caused board member Cathryn DeYoung and other rail opponents to push for the public to weigh in.
The thought was that a countywide vote would be a litmus test: If the electorate supported the idea, lobbying Congress for the needed funds would be easier. If voters rejected the plan, the rail line would probably be dead.
Local members of Congress have been lukewarm toward CenterLine, and there is a shortage of federal money for transportation projects.
Some board members who sided with DeYoung noted that Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim) was the only one of the six-member Orange County congressional delegation who had expressed support for the project. Until the community rallies around the project, federal funding will remain uncertain, she said.
Pulido, however, said OCTA could generate congressional support through continued lobbying. Allowing voters to decide the merits of CenterLine through an advisory measure would send the wrong signal, he said.
By rejecting the ballot proposal, "it's a strong signal that we're pushing forward," Pulido said.
But county Supervisor Chris Norby, also an OCTA board member, said not putting the measure on the ballot sent the opposite message.
"It shows the delegation that there isn't much public support for CenterLine and a ballot measure would be risky," said Norby, an opponent of the light-rail project. He said local funds earmarked for the project could be better used to improve existing Metrolink and bus service in the county.
Cypress Mayor Tim Keenan, an OCTA board member, said a countywide poll last year by the Orange County Business Council showed that 55% of those surveyed favored CenterLine. Keenan, a project supporter, said the rail system could still be built without federal funds and completed on time by 2009.
He said that even if there were no federal funding, the $500 million could come from an extension of Measure M, which he expects voters to approve. He said about $300 million in Measure M funds had already been set aside for CenterLine. County voters approved Measure M in 1990, establishing a 0.5% sales tax to raise money for local transportation projects. The measure expires in 2011, and county transportation agencies have indicated that they will ask voters to extend the tax.
"We can build the project in stages and still complete it on time," Keenan said. "I'm confident that the CenterLine will be built and it will be the first phase of a rail system that will eventually connect to Anaheim, Cypress and Los Angeles."