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Orange County’s first modern streetcar plans to be the future of transit on track

Living carefree and car-free is what the Orange County Transportation Authority’s latest Measure M-funded project — called OC Streetcar — hopes to do for county residents, commuters and tourists.

Following the tracks of other public modern streetcar systems in Portland, Ore., Seattle and Salt Lake City, the transit project — which officials hope will be ready for operation in 2020 — will run on electric wires powered by four traction power substations.

A trip will take 30 minutes from departure to arrival, traveling alongside the road as fast as local speed allows.

The modern streetcar is expected to carry up to 150 passengers in a single ride and about 7,300 passengers per day within its first year, OCTA officials said.

“The idea for the project came in 2006, with many studies being done on different alignments and technologies, and the cities [of Santa Ana and Garden Grove] finally settled on a modern electric streetcar,” said Tresa Oliveri, OCTA outreach project manager and community relations officer. “We also wanted to solve the ‘last-mile’ problem many commuters face, where a bus or train route will only go up to a certain point.”

The streetcar will operate down a 4.1-mile route that starts in Santa Ana, and go about 600 feet into Garden Grove, where a new transit hub will be built at Harbor Boulevard and Westminster Avenue — less than a mile from OCTA’s Garden Grove operation base.

About 40,000 people commute to downtown Santa Ana every day and the city is the nation’s fifth most densely populated city, according to census data.

“We also hope to utilize the Santa Ana Metrolink parking structure more and to address the big parking issue in Santa Ana,” Oliveri said. “People can park their car, ride the streetcar and it takes them through major areas in the heart of Orange County.”

Tickets will be sold at each platform station and the streetcar’s operating hours will be from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays and holidays.

With direct connections to 18 OCTA bus routes and the Metrolink station, the route will run along Santa Ana Boulevard and historic Fourth Street, and utilize the old Pacific Electric streetcar route through the downtown and residential neighborhoods.

“The [OC Streetcar] will provide Orange County residents with another transportation option, connecting to Metrolink commuter rail and our bus system to help move thousands of people more efficiently to their jobs and schools, to business meetings, to shopping, entertainment and dining,” said Steve Jones, mayor of Garden Grove and an OCTA director, in a statement. “This is another major step forward.”

The first station will be at the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, with major stops including state and local courthouses, the sheriff’s department, Civic Center, and downtown Santa Ana’s art, shopping and restaurant scene.

The route will also go through an OCTA-owned stretch of empty land known as the “PE Right-of-Way” — a roughly 20-mile corridor that served as the old Pacific Electric transit railroad from Santa Ana to Paramount in Los Angeles County.

About two miles of the route will be built on the old tracks in the right-of-way, and alongside the Santa Ana River channel.

An OCTA maintenance and storage facility also will be built at the route’s halfway point, where the streetcars — eight in total, with six always in operation — will be housed.

Each of the 10 stations will be built with platforms on both sides of major cross-streets — including Broadway, Fairview Street, Bristol Street and Westminster Avenue.

At the Ross Street station, the route will split in two directions along 4th Street and Santa Ana Boulevard, cutting through downtown Santa Ana’s Sasscer Park.

“The stops are based on distance from each other and convenience to destinations, as well as interface with popular OCTA bus programs and the Metrolink,” said Oliveri.

The streetcar will also provide access to retail, residential neighborhoods and several schools along the route — including Nova Academy, George Washington Carver and Lydia Romero Cruz elementary schools, and Santa Ana College.

“We hope to serve people who live and work along the route … making it easier for commuters to make transit connections,” said OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter. “There’s been a lot of incremental steps and outreach to businesses and residents, getting input from the community so they feel like they are a part of the planning process.”

Funding the project

Measure M — the county’s half-cent sales tax to be used for transportation projects and improvements — along with funds from the federal New Starts program helped move the OC Streetcar along financially.

In January, the Federal Transit Administration reviewed the project successfully on the plan’s estimated ridership, benefits to the community, construction and operations costs. OCTA was granted permission to enter into the streetcar’s engineering and design phase.

In May, OCTA announced a budget deal with congressional leaders for an initial $50 million in funding for the current fiscal year.

“We’re thrilled to see the federal government continue to join us at the local level in recognizing what a strong transportation project this is,” said Miguel Pulido, mayor of Santa Ana and an OCTA director, in a statement.

On May 22, the OCTA board approved a full funding grant agreement through the FTA, which would cover nearly half of the project’s approximately $299.3 million overall cost.

The agreement is to ensure that OCTA’s commitment “demonstrates that the project has met all requirements to receive funding through the federal Capital Investment Grant Program,” a statement said.

Following FTA and 30-day congressional review — as well as expected approval by President Trump — the agreement will be finalized by early December, OCTA said.

According to the agency, annual streetcar operations and maintenance costs are anticipated at about $5.9 million, with 20% from ticket fares and 80% percent from countywide Measure M taxes.

Of the percentages, Santa Ana contributes 10% percent and Garden Grove 1.5%.

Construction is expected to begin in mid-2018, with route testing and operations planned for 2020.

“This project returns our federal tax dollars to Orange County, leading to additional jobs and increased economic development,” Pulido said. “We’ve earned support from our local residents and businesses, and we’re happy to partner with the government to get the OC Streetcar up and running.”

Community reacts

The OC Streetcar has been met with mixed reactions from business and community leaders.

With many residents and business owners concerned about the impact of construction and uprooting of crucial parking spaces to build tracks, the OCTA outreach team has talked with people who live and work along the route.

“I think [a modern streetcar] will be beautiful,” said Fortunato Reyes, a 25-year resident of the Lacy neighborhood on Santa Ana Boulevard. “For me, it is convenient; more transportation is always good. Too many people walk to the train station. It will greatly benefit the neighborhood.”

Others were not in favor.

“I’m worried about the value of the house and the rent going up,” said Victoria Martinez, a Santa Ana resident who lives next to the planned streetcar path. “More traffic also means danger.”

Legal assistant Kevin Barrot, who works downtown, said a streetcar would increase car traffic, particularly in the Civic Center, and increase homeless activity.

“I’m not really in favor of it,” Barrot said. “It’s going to ruin the historical value of 4th Street. I just think Measure M tax money can be used for other more useful or efficient transportation funds.”

Others expressed a mixed viewpoint.

Ice cream shop Scoops OC has been located along the Santa Ana Boulevard track route for two years. Owner Peter Ji said he felt both excited and nervous for the streetcar.

“I’m excited that there is more growth, transportation wise, going into Orange County,” Ji said. “It can be good in the sense that people will take more public transportation and use their cars less. It’s definitely good for tourists exploring or new to this area.

“As a business owner, I’m afraid all the construction might reduce foot traffic to this area. If I actually lived here, I would be annoyed of it.”

Ji added: “It will take a lot of learning and getting used to, as with any kind of development happening in a city. People will learn to appreciate and work with it.”

ALLYSON ESCOBAR is a contributor to Times Community News.

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