The Light Rail Solution: Orange, Santa Ana Need to Get Aboard

Sarah L. Catz is a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board

Former Yankee legend Yogi Berra once said, "You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there." While Berra was referring to baseball, it's not much of a stretch to draw a parallel to recent actions of the Santa Ana and Orange city councils as they voted against further study of a light rail system for Orange County.

These shortsighted decisions demonstrate little understanding of the future transportation needs of their residents and the county as a whole. Fortunately, the lack of foresight demonstrated by these cities was contrasted by the positive votes of Irvine, Costa Mesa and Fullerton.

The actions of Santa Ana and Orange occurred in light of a recent poll showing that more than 60% of voters in these cities view light rail as good for their communities, and good for the overall quality of life in Orange County.

The study of a light rail system dates back to 1990, when the citizens of Orange County approved Measure M, a 20-year plan to address traffic and growth issues through a balanced group of transportation projects. One key feature of Measure M was the designation of $340 million for a high-technology rail system. At that time, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) board approved an 87-mile countywide rail master plan. Following a series of studies, a 28-mile corridor between Fullerton and Irvine was chosen as the best place to start planning the system.

Measure M demonstrated that voters in this county understand that mobility and transportation alternatives are two crucial issues facing Orange County in the new millennium. This is especially true in light of projections that show tremendous growth in the county over the next two decades. It is obvious that we need more than just concrete to address our transportation needs.

Santa Ana is in the heart of the proposed CenterLine corridor and is the country's third most densely populated city. The proposed corridor contains 57% of the county's work force, 34% of its residents and 60% of all trip beginning or ending points. Additionally, the proposed alignment would serve 45 major employment centers as well as key entertainment and commerce venues, including the Anaheim resort area, Edison International Field and the Arrowhead Pond, the Block at Orange, MainPlace/Santa Ana, South Coast Plaza and the Irvine Spectrum. This alignment will help meet the growing transportation needs of residents, businesses and visitors alike.

Critics say OCTA should concentrate on improving the bus and freeway system and not use taxpayer money on light rail. The problem with these arguments is twofold. First, OCTA has already committed to increasing bus service over the next 15 years by 50%. Second, in the 1990s, OCTA spent nearly $2 billion on freeway improvements throughout the county while the Transportation Corridor Agencies expended another $2 billion on 51 miles of new roadway. While OCTA will work to alleviate freeway choke points, complete the county's carpool system and increase capacity at key interchanges such as the 405/55, widening freeways is no longer a viable option.

Besides the fact that there is only so much concrete we can pour, it is important to point out that for every dollar we would spend on the CenterLine, four will be going to other transportation modes.

An indication of what transit choices can mean to a region is commuter rail. When OCTA bought the San Diegan rail corridor and joined four other counties in the creation of Metrolink, the goal was to improve it by adding more and better trains. The result has been an increase in ridership from 700 passenger trips a day to well over 5,700, a 700% increase. Roughly 70% of those Metrolink riders are former solo drivers now off our roads. Combined, these developments have led OCTA to build more stations and add more service to a system that naysayers said would never be used.

Ironically, Orange and Santa Ana will benefit more than the cities that vigorously support the project. We must work with the current city councils as well as future councils in defining both the alignment and the technology that can be supported by as many people as possible.

Only when we complete the study of the CenterLine project will we be able to determine if a light rail transportation system makes sense for Orange County. While there are several concerns over issues relating to the CenterLine, the route's unique blend of population, employment density and activity centers should make it more than a viable transportation option for Orange County's future.

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