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CenterLine Projections Are Lowered

Based on new federal criteria, OCTA reduces rider estimates for light-rail system.

September 14, 2004|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Transportation Authority on Monday lowered its ridership forecast by almost 10% for the proposed CenterLine project, a billion-dollar light-rail system that would run from John Wayne Airport to downtown Santa Ana.

OCTA officials revised their projections from 24,800 boardings per day by 2025 to 22,600, using tighter federal criteria for estimating the ridership for proposed light-rail lines.

Despite the lower forecast, transit officials said CenterLine's ridership estimate was higher than most of the light-rail projects in the nation that have applied to the Federal Transit Administration for funding.

OCTA is seeking at least $500 million from the federal government to build CenterLine, which would run 9.3 miles through Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and a small part of Irvine near John Wayne Airport. The federal government is not expected to make a decision until after the November election. If approved, CenterLine would be scheduled to open by 2010.

OCTA revised the projections under new federal criteria that required the authority to consider the bus and light-rail experiences of other cities in its estimates. The new forecast was presented Monday to the OCTA board of directors.

Over the last five years CenterLine's predicted ridership has been a moving target, given all the changes that have whittled the system down from 28 miles to 9.3 miles. Estimated boardings have fallen from a high of 60,000 a day to the current 22,600.

The new figures brought mixed reactions from OCTA officials and board members. While some were pleased the system's projections were better than many light-rail projects vying for federal funds, others said they thought the new numbers were another sign of the project's shortcomings.

"The goal of the modeling was to provide the most accurate figures possible so policymakers can make the best decision possible," said Ted Nguyen, an OCTA spokesman. "We are proud that CenterLine is competitive nationally with a strong ridership showing."

But Orange County Supervisor and OCTA board member Bill Campbell said the revised forecast was "even more devastating for CenterLine."

Drawing on the total ridership figure, Campbell said CenterLine would remove only 4,400 people a day from their cars at a cost of $273,000 per head in construction costs. "This is one more reason not to support CenterLine," he added.

Light-rail supporters on the OCTA board, such as Cypress Councilman Tim Keenan and Buena Park Councilman Art Brown, defended the project, noting that first phases can be expensive and that light rail had been successful in other cities.

In other board action Monday, the union that represents OCTA's 1,200 bus drivers continued to pressure the agency to meet contract demands for a higher cost-of-living raise and a fairer citizen complaint process.

Fourteen drivers and officials from Teamsters Local 952 addressed the board of directors shortly before the board met in closed session to discuss the labor talks.

Drivers say they want a cost-of-living increase of more than 3% a year over the next three years. They also want to scrap the current complaint process, which they say is heavily weighted in favor of bus riders.

OCTA Chief Executive Arthur Leahy "wants us to be the best, but he doesn't want to offer us the best," said Patti Stellmach, a veteran bus driver. "UPS drivers carry boxes at about $24 an hour. We haul precious cargo at $15 to $20 an hour."

OCTA officials said they hoped both sides would come to an agreement that was fair to the authority and bus drivers.

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