A decade ago, Orange County transportation officials shelved plans for a 9.3-mile, billion-dollar light-rail system that would have run through Santa Ana and Costa Mesa to John Wayne Airport.
Political support for the long-planned and controversial CenterLine project had vanished, and policymakers turned to other options, including adding bus service and shifting transportation funds to road and freeway construction.
Now, rail transit is poised for a comeback in a region skewed much more than Los Angeles County, its rail-building neighbor to the north, toward the automobile.
The Orange County Transportation Authority and the cities of Santa Ana and Garden Grove are finalizing plans for a $250-million streetcar line that would connect the heart of Santa Ana — the county seat — to a new regional transit hub in Garden Grove.
Environmental reports are done, and the project recently qualified for coveted federal funding status that could provide half the money needed for construction.
"This will be a paradigm shift that will change Orange County and allow the county's central core to function differently," said Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, an OCTA board member and leading proponent of the project.
The four-mile route would run from the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center along Santa Ana Boulevard through the city's resurgent downtown and the Santa Ana Civic Center, filled with court facilities and county government offices. Not far from the planned line are Santa Ana College and the Orange County School of the Arts.
After more than two miles, the proposed line would turn northwest along an old right-of-way used in an earlier era by Pacific Electric trolleys. That route was purchased and preserved by OCTA. The route would end at Westminster Avenue and Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove, where a new transit center is planned.
A short loop off the main line would serve Santa Ana's historic 4th Street, a revitalized area that includes shopping, an artists village and a thriving restaurant scene.
Planners say the system would have 12 stops, connect with 18 bus routes and feed commuters to Amtrak and
Planners envision up to seven streetcars operating at any given time, making stops every 10 minutes during peak travel hours and every 15 minutes during non-peak times.
OCTA officials say the system would cost about $6 million a year to operate, but they have not yet determined the amount of ongoing operating subsidy that would be required.
Allan Roeder, Garden Grove's interim city manager, said the new transportation center would be at two of the county's busiest transit corridors: Harbor and Westminster.
If successful, supporters say, the project could form the first segment of a much larger streetcar network serving Fullerton, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and John Wayne Airport.
Anaheim has begun considering a similar trolley system that would extend from the new $188-million Anaheim Regional Transportation and Intermodal Center to the city's convention center and resort area, including Disneyland.
Officials say the 1.85-mile Pacific Electric right-of-way route for the proposed streetcar could encourage so-called transit-oriented development on surrounding land, such as new homes, recreation areas and commercial projects. One potential development site is the 100-acre Willowick Golf Course, which lies in Santa Ana but is owned by the city of Garden Grove.
"The line will connect a whole lot of people to a whole lot of cool stuff," said Garden Grove City Councilman and OCTA board member Steve Jones.
Supporters say the streetcar has not yet encountered the degree of political resistance and neighborhood opposition that doomed the CenterLine light-rail proposal.
Some residents and local merchants, however, have expressed concerns about construction effects, the loss of parking and growth from new development that could increase traffic congestion and raise housing prices.
The CenterLine light-rail project, originally planned to be 28 miles long, was repeatedly shortened in response to community opposition. Critics — some favoring cheaper transit buses — also alleged that it would not attract enough riders to relieve traffic congestion and be too expensive to build and operate.
Like the proposed streetcar, local officials had hoped the federal government would pay about half of CenterLine's construction costs. But the project was halted in 2005 after it failed to secure enough support from the county's congressional delegation.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) supports the current streetcar project and transportation officials say they have not heard of any opposition from the county's federal representatives.
"There are no signs of what we went through with CenterLine. We have good cooperation with OCTA and the city of Santa Ana," said Roeder, who worked on the CenterLine project as the city manager of Costa Mesa. "The benefit of this project is that we are starting small and building from there."
OCTA officials say the project could receive federal funding by late 2017, clearing the way for construction. On Monday, the OCTA began the process of selecting a design firm. Assuming the schedule falls into place, the streetcar should be operational by the end of 2019.