Fewer Riders Expected for Rail Project

Times Staff Writer

Orange County’s transit agency has promoted its CenterLine project as a $1.1-billion light-rail system that will attract 42,500 riders daily as it whisks them to major destinations and spurs economic growth in Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.

But projections recently submitted to the federal government show the downsized 11-mile route will cost more than $1.5 billion to build due to inflation, and daily ridership will average 21,800 initially if the line opens on schedule in 2011. After 15 years of operation, the elevated trolley is expected to have 31,600 daily riders.

Officials with the Orange County Transportation Authority said the figures reflect the latest version of CenterLine, which last year was scaled back from 17.6 miles to 11.4 miles.


The six-mile reduction occurred in Irvine, removing the Irvine Spectrum commercial area and the Irvine Transportation Center as destinations.

City officials will let voters decide in June whether to allow the remaining Irvine segment to be built.

As now envisioned, CenterLine would run from UC Irvine to John Wayne Airport via the Irvine Business Complex at the west end of that city.

From there, the route continues to the South Coast Plaza area in Costa Mesa, then heads north on Bristol Street to Civic Center Drive in Santa Ana, where the line turns east to the city’s civic center, ending at the Santa Ana train station.

The latest cost and ridership estimates are in the transit agency’s application for more than $750 million in federal funds -- about half the cost of building CenterLine -- which is pending before the Federal Transit Administration.

Charles Guess, the transit agency’s program manager for CenterLine, said the $1.5-billion estimate reflects years of inflation on the original estimate of $1.06 billion, which was calculated using 1999 dollars.

If the project is built, construction would begin in 2007 and finish in 2011.

There have been some mistakes in information provided to the public about CenterLine’s potential performance, transit agency officials acknowledged. The project has changed several times, they said, complicating efforts to inform staff members and the public.

“We are updating all of our materials related to CenterLine. There will be new fact sheets, new brochures and new verbiage for the Web site,” said George Urch, the transit agency’s director of media, marketing, and advertising. “We want to be upfront with the numbers.”

More detailed cost and ridership information will be available in September, when preliminary engineering studies will be completed.

Critics of light rail say the latest ridership figures further indicate that few people will ride CenterLine and that the project will have little, if any, impact on traffic congestion and air quality. The latter have been stated goals of light-rail advocates.

“I’m glad to see they are updating those figures,” said professor Mike McNally of UC Irvine’s Institute of Transportation Studies.

“The 42,500 estimate was out of the ballpark,” he said. “UCI students aren’t going to ride CenterLine. Neither are people in the Irvine Business Complex. All that’s left are people in Santa Ana.”

CenterLine supporters say it is necessary because transportation demands will increase dramatically and less land will be available for highways.

Light rail can avoid traffic on busy city streets, they contend, and will offer people more transit choices.