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Light Rail Plan Rolls Along With OCTA Vote

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County could have a new light rail system under construction within 10 years, following an action taken Monday by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Voting 10-1, the OCTA’s board of directors gave a green light to spending $4 million to $6 million to design a rail system along the busy 28-mile corridor connecting Fullerton and Irvine.

“In 25 years, the freeways we have now will be totally inadequate,” OCTA board member Michael Ward said in voting for the proposal. “This is a long-range deal. We have to look to the future.”

While construction of a rail system could begin within a decade, OCTA officials said, the system would not be completed until several years later.

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Critics called Monday’s action the beginning of the road to disaster.

“This is a sham,” said Bill Ward, chairman of Drivers for Highway Safety, which has long opposed rail as the most expensive and least efficient way of getting people around. “It’s like when you buy real estate in Florida, and they don’t tell you about the tide coming up.”

Monday’s decision came after three years of discussion that began in 1994 when the OCTA commissioned a $3-million study to analyze ways of improving traffic along the 28-mile-long, 6-mile-wide area from Fullerton to Irvine. The corridor contains 34% of the county’s residents and 57% of its jobs. About 5.1 million trips a day--more than 60% of the county’s total--occur within the corridor, which touches 10 cities, OCTA officials say. By 2015, they say, the number of trips is expected to reach 6.9 million.

The study by OCTA staff was designed to figure out how to spend about $340 million in Measure M sales tax funds earmarked for developing rapid transit systems. The study recommended improving the freeways, increasing bus service and building a $1.7-billion light-rail system.

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In taking Monday’s action, the OCTA board eliminated the recommendation to improve the freeways because, according to the staff report, the needed improvements “are already being addressed” by other agencies.

But it heartily endorsed a plan to improve the bus and commuter rail systems by expanding bus service 49% in the next 20 years, making street improvements along the busiest bus routes and adding 1,000 seats to Metrolink commuter rail service between Fullerton and Irvine. The total estimated cost of the improvements is $143.5 million--expected to come from state, federal and Measure M funds--plus about $43.9 million in additional operating costs once the improvements are made.

The board also took a major step toward constructing a light rail system by approving the plan to design a train route running along Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton and Anaheim, Main Street in Santa Ana and through central Irvine.

“We must be visionaries,” said board member Thomas W. Wilson, who voted for the light rail plan. “The economy is coming back. There will be more people, and transportation has to respond.”

The only board member to vote against the proposal was Jim Silva, who argued that rail systems seldom pay for themselves and usually require huge public subsidies.

Members of Drivers for Highway Safety agreed.

“You’re being pulled into a black hole of funding for rail,” Jack Mallinckrodt warned board members. “The point of no return is rapidly being approached. Stop it while you can.”

Speaking after the decision was made, Bill Ward--of the highway safety group--predicted dire financial consequences should the light rail system be built.

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“This will guarantee a tax,” he said. “There is no other way to support the operating costs of rail. To call this fixed rail is appropriate; the fix was in from the beginning.”


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