Placentia Rail Project That Drew Fire Over Chief’s Pay Urgently Seeks Funds

Times Staff Writer

A Placentia rail project, whose director has been criticized by community activists for the size of his salary, is seeking an emergency loan of $11.8 million from the Orange County Transportation Authority to keep the project from going broke.

Representatives of OnTrac, the small government agency spearheading the project, requested the money this week, saying it is “desperately needed” to complete a major right-of-way purchase and keep construction going along a five-mile rail corridor through south Placentia.

The agency is “experiencing an emergency funding problem” because of the state budget crisis and the inability to get more financial support from the California Transportation Commission, OnTrac officials told OCTA.

“Without this money, the project is on hold,” said Placentia City Councilman Scott Brady, who is also an OnTrac board member.


The financial pinch has prompted community activists to question how well OnTrac has been managed and whether it was a good idea to move forward with right-of-way purchases and major construction after potential cuts in state transportation spending were announced late last year.

OnTrac spent money it simply did not have, critics say, and has now put the project at risk.

“They waited for the rail fairies to show up with the money, but they failed to consider the very real consequences if the money did not show up,” said Craig Green, a city activist and member of Citizens for a Better Placentia.

The project, which has been underway since the late 1990s, is designed to improve the speed and safety of rail traffic by building crossings at busy streets and placing tracks below ground level in a concrete trench. The project also is viewed as a way to accommodate the dramatic growth in cargo moving to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

OnTrac has received about $16 million of $28 million earmarked for it by a state program. The balance might not be forthcoming for at least a year because of the state’s giant budget gap.

The situation is especially urgent, OnTrac officials say, because they have negotiated a $5.57-million deal through eminent domain proceedings to buy Office Depot’s property on Placentia Avenue. The company moved the store to Fullerton four months ago to make way for a new crossing.

The deal was reached while cuts in state transportation funds loomed. Brady said OnTrac needs the loan from OCTA to complete the Office Depot acquisition or face legal problems.

During an OCTA committee hearing Monday, member and county Supervisor Chris Norby said he is concerned about the salary of Christopher Becker, the project’s executive director. Becker, Placentia’s former public works director, was hired as a consultant to run OnTrac.


Last fiscal year, his earnings were about $500,000, counting his public works pay and consultancy, according to city records, making him one of the state’s highest-paid transit officials. His contract was renegotiated downward in March, but he still has the potential to make almost $300,000 a year, plus 15% of consulting contracts for the project.

Becker has defended his salary, saying he has been an integral part of the project since its beginning and has developed expertise in dealing with the railroad companies.