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Rail Line Funding Is OKd

O.C.'s CenterLine project is eligible for $340 million in Measure M money, panel rules.

June 09, 2004|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

The controversial CenterLine project cleared a major hurdle Tuesday night when a government oversight committee concluded that $340 million in local sales tax revenue can be used to fund the light-rail system.

Members of the Measure M Citizens Oversight Committee decided on a 8-0 vote, with one abstention, that the billion-dollar CenterLine project met the requirements of Measure M, a 1990 ballot measure that established a 0.5% sales tax to raise money for local transportation projects until 2011.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has been counting on Measure M funds to cover $200 million of construction and $140 million to fund operation of the line. Some Measure M funds have already been spent on the project. The authority also is seeking state and federal assistance.

"This is a very important finding for CenterLine," said Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer, who had once shelved the project two years ago because of a lack of political support. "The committee members understood the issue and concluded we were in full compliance with Measure M."

Had the committee found against CenterLine, OCTA would have been forced to seek funding elsewhere for the project or cancel it entirely.

For almost three months, the Measure M Citizens Oversight Committee has been grappling with the wording of the initiative and its criteria for funding projects.

Passed by voters after three attempts, Measure M has raised about $3 billion to $4 billion so far for local transportation projects. It provides guidelines for a variety of highway, street, rail and transit improvements undertaken by the OCTA and local cities.

The initiative also created the oversight committee of nine members nominated by the Orange County Grand Jury Assn., a nonprofit organization of former grand jurors, and then selected by OCTA. Committee members review projects funded by the sales tax to ensure they conform to Measure M's requirements.

Committee members said Tuesday that CenterLine met the measure's definition of high-tech advanced rail and was an appropriate extension of service from the county's main rail line, which runs from San Diego to Los Angeles -- the so-called LOSSAN corridor.

The project also met the initiative's criteria calling for the development of a high-capacity urban rail system in Orange County.

"Measure M is specific and written appropriately at the time" it was passed, said committee member Derek McGregor. "I'd like to see this project move forward."

County auditor-controller David Sundstrom, the committee chairman, abstained from voting, saying he thought the CenterLine project was not clearly defined in Measure M. He proposed asking the OCTA board of directors to amend Measure M to add CenterLine to its language, but his idea got no support from committee members.

The committee began looking into CenterLine after light-rail opponents complained at the panel's Feb. 10 meeting that the proposal was inconsistent with project descriptions in Measure M.

As now envisioned, the nine-mile street car system would run from John Wayne Airport to the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center. The line, which is in the engineering phase, would pass through the South Coast Plaza area and north on Bristol Street.

OCTA has long contended that the project met Measure M's requirements to develop existing rights-of-way and create an urban rail system in Orange County.

Just as significant, OCTA officials said the oversight committee had ruled repeatedly that Measure M funds already used for the project had been spent properly.

So far, CenterLine has received about $25 million in sales tax revenue.

But at the committee's April meeting, the discussion focused on opponents' claims that CenterLine's receipt of $340 million in Measure M funds would run counter to the intent of the initiative's rail component.

Committee members pondered whether a line serving Santa Ana and Costa Mesa would benefit the county and the north-south rail corridor, a priority of Measure M.

The initiative requirements state that "the primary improvements will be along the LOSSAN rail corridor and designed to provide frequent train service between north and south Orange County."

About $257 million in Measure M funds helped establish the Metrolink commuter rail service along the rail corridor in Orange County.

OCTA officials say they are planning to spend at least $300 million to more than double Metrolink service by 2030, which would be improving the primary line.

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