Fifteen years after first flirting with the idea of building a light-rail system in the heart of Orange County, local transportation leaders on Monday shelved the $1-billion CenterLine project at least temporarily to consider other transit options.
The Orange County Transportation Authority will now consider expanding Metrolink rail service or building a rapid-transit bus system along Bristol Street in Santa Ana, which was to have been a main leg of the CenterLine route.
"The board has decided to re-look at the money set aside for advanced mass transit," said Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell, chairman of the OCTA board. "They said, 'Don't limit us to light rail. We need to look at other things.' "
Among options are developing the old Pacific Electric streetcar right-of-way in Orange County, shifting CenterLine funds to road projects, widening Bristol Street in Santa Ana and starting rapid transit bus projects in other parts of the county.
OCTA officials said a final report is due in June. If board members decide to pursue bus rapid transit or any other alternative, the light-rail project will be canceled, said Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive.
As now envisioned, CenterLine would run 9.3 miles from John Wayne Airport to the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center with a spur to Santa Ana College. That route would take it through the South Coast Plaza area and Santa Ana's Civic Center.
OCTA had hoped to pay for roughly half the project with federal assistance, but the agency has not been able to secure support from county's congressional delegation, except for Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).
At Monday's board meeting, Santa Ana Mayor and OCTA board member Miguel A. Pulido blamed Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) for failing to lobby for the project in Congress. Cox has questioned whether the public really wanted CenterLine, and he once said he would like to have seen the project put to a countywide vote.
Pulido also said the board made "some mistakes" by repeatedly shortening the line to avoid community and political opposition along its route. In the 1990s, CenterLine was envisioned as a 28-mile route with stops at major destinations from Irvine to Fullerton. Today, it's roughly a third of that.
If CenterLine is killed in the months ahead, it would free up about $350 million in Measure M funds to help develop other possibilities. Measure M is the county's sales tax to raise money for transportation projects.
OCTA officials want to consider rapid transit bus service for Bristol because millions of dollars have already been spent to evaluate the street for CenterLine use. Much of that work, they say, could be applied to a bus line.
Bus rapid transit is faster than conventional bus service because it employs exclusive lanes separating buses from general traffic.
Buses can run on city streets or more expensive guideways, such as elevated routes, much like commuter rail lines.
Supporters say bus rapid transit can be far cheaper than light rail and provide more flexibility when transit service needs to be added or reduced in an area. It is also favored by the Bush administration and key congressional leaders who help set priorities for transportation spending.
OCTA officials say bus rapid transit or other comparable projects are needed to fulfill CenterLine's role in helping the region meet federal air quality requirements by 2010.
Otherwise, the lack of progress on the transportation front could result in lawsuits by environmentalists to force compliance with clean-air laws. Several suits have been filed around the nation.
CenterLine critics viewed Monday's decision as a step in the right direction. They contend that light rail is too expensive and would not attract enough riders to relieve congestion on the county's streets and highways.
"CenterLine is dead," said Wayne King, a transportation activist and founder of Roads Work Best, a nonprofit organization. "Let's move on to what we can really use: a better bus system. But we should not gild the lily" with an expensive project.
OCTA has considered an elaborate bus system -- with stations, dedicated lanes and guideways -- that could cost $800 million to $900 million for a route comparable to CenterLine.
Some light-rail opponents, however, remain skeptical that a rapid transit bus system for Bristol Street is a thinly disgusted attempt to keep CenterLine going. They asked the board to postpone any study of bus systems that use exclusive guideways on streets.
"Enough is enough," said Bill Ward of Drivers for Highway Safety, a local transportation group that has been critical of CenterLine. "We don't need to throw good money after bad. The money for light rail needs to be returned to cities for use in meeting their transportation needs."
During Monday's action, several board members disputed whether the CenterLine project was in fact "dead," as declared by the critics and in some news accounts. Someday, they predicted, the county will have a light-rail system.
Pulido, Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Costa Mesa City Councilman Gary Monahan said Monday's action was not a death knell for CenterLine but a pause while the board fully considered other options before deciding what to do.
"CenterLine is not dead. There are many questions about bus rapid transit," said Monahan, whose city helped revive the light-rail proposal in 2001. "We spent months and months trying to get the CenterLine route to work."