Light Rail Lacks Key Supporters


A week before county transportation officials are slated to choose a final route for the heavily promoted CenterLine project, the key political support they had hoped to attract hasn’t materialized, and opposition has grown.

That could force officials to abandon a third of a light rail network projected to cost about $2 billion.

Orange County Transportation Agency officials have worked feverishly to gain support for the project. But a group of outspoken Anaheim city officials, some of whom have already objected to the plan, now are denouncing it and demanding that the city oppose it. Critics call the rail line, which could cost $80 million a mile, a staggering waste of transportation dollars.


Equally frustrating, rail advocates say, is the failure of Disneyland, the Anaheim Convention Center and others that would benefit to voice support for a route envisioned to run from Fullerton to the Irvine Transportation Center, also passing through Santa Ana.

The increased opposition from a city that has been considered central to the 30-mile rail line has caught OCTA officials by surprise. Suddenly, proponents are in the awkward position of defending themselves against accusations that they have been overzealous in their drive to begin construction within two years.

“I don’t ever want to see this line built,” Anaheim City Councilwoman Lucille Kring said in a recent interview. “They could still try to force this down our throats, but I don’t know how they’ll do it.”


OCTA officials are scheduled to select the final route on Feb. 26. But Anaheim officials have asked the agency to postpone any decision until the council votes on whether to endorse construction. A negative vote would be symbolic--the council has no official say over construction. But it would be an enormous political hurdle for rail advocates.

Transportation officials are scrambling to avoid such a standoff, going so far as to propose eliminating the northern third of the line, from Fullerton to Edison Field in Anaheim. “We’re not in the business of forcing projects on cities that don’t want them,” OCTA Chief Executive Arthur Leahy told Anaheim council members last week. “We’re looking to be partners with Anaheim. We’re looking to be partners with everyone along the route.”


Among those opposed is a group of residents who say the rail line will destroy the Anaheim Colony Historic District, as well as officials who say CenterLine is wildly expensive. They cite research showing that the system would serve less than 1% of county drivers and that buses would be a better solution to ease congestion.


While the council was never enthusiastic about the project, OCTA had hoped to win at least a bare majority endorsement. Councilman Frank Feldhaus, a swing vote whom OCTA had hoped to persuade, has been particularly critical of the line’s projected costs.

“I still feel light rail is a boondoggle at that price,” he said.

And although rail advocates have touted the fact that the CenterLine would pass close to Disneyland, the Anaheim Convention Center, Arrowhead Pond and downtown Anaheim, they’ve heard little from those venues in the way of enthusiasm.

Disney would benefit greatly from the rail line, advocates say. Yet the entertainment giant will not weigh in.

“We’ve got no position on it,” Disney spokesman Ray Gomez said. “We’d like to see study and review of the project continue. We still want to see whether it’s something that the community needs and wants.”

Privately, OCTA officials complain that Disney is either shying away from what is shaping up to be a political battle or is reluctant to endorse a project that could whisk visitors to other tourist destinations. Either way, supporters are frustrated.

“Where is Disney?” lamented one OCTA official. “They’re not shy. Why aren’t they stepping up and saying, ‘This is a must’? They should be there.”


If transit officials do eliminate the northernmost 10 miles of the route to appease Anaheim, they run the risk of alienating city leaders in Fullerton, a strong supporter of the project.

Some say a shortened route also would reduce the benefits of a light rail line. OCTA officials have touted the line as being a boon to low-wage workers, yet the portion of the line that may now be eliminated has the highest percentage of below-poverty level residents along the entire network.


Despite private acknowledgments by OCTA officials that Anaheim’s possible defection is an enormous political hurdle, transportation directors are saying publicly that the project will become a reality.

“It will not kill the project,” said OCTA Chairman and Irvine City Councilman Mike Ward of Anaheim’s apparent opposition. “It’s a disappointment, though. Particularly when you consider that this is a city that depends heavily on the travel industry.”

Ward predicted that if Anaheim withdraws from the network, it would regret it.

“I envision Anaheim ending up like San Mateo County,” he said. “They didn’t want the BART system to go through San Mateo, and it never did. Now they’re screaming to take part in it.”

Before construction can begin, OCTA officials must select from several route options, including a mostly elevated system that would whisk passengers over city streets at speeds reaching 60 mph.


Roughly three quarters of the expense would be covered by federal rail and anti-pollution funds. The rest would come from Measure M, the county half-cent sales tax.


Popularity Gap

Because of objections by Anaheim leaders, the Orange County Transportation Authority may lop off the bottom third of the proposed 30-mile CenterLine light rail project. OCTA is set to pick a final route Feb. 26.

Source: Orange County Transportation Authority