Costa Mesa civic and business leaders want to place the county's proposed light-rail project underground for almost a mile to minimize its impact on the city's commercial and cultural hub, a move that could boost CenterLine's cost as much as $200 million.
Officials for the Orange County Transportation Authority said Thursday they received a formal request from the Costa Mesa City Council to study the feasibility of running part of the 11-mile line under the South Coast Plaza and South Coast Metro areas. CenterLine, as now planned, would be elevated in that section of the city.
Costa Mesa officials would like the route to gradually dip below ground on Bristol Street between Sunflower Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in Santa Ana and resurface on Anton Boulevard, east of Avenue of the Arts in Costa Mesa.
Two stations also would be underground.
"There are lots of questions and concerns that should be addressed now instead of 20 years later," Peter Naghavi, manager of transportation services for Costa Mesa, said of the city's request.
"We have lots of traffic, parking and pedestrian concerns. The area is designed for high-intensity uses that might conflict with the line."
OCTA officials said, however, that the proposed change might be more expensive than the city has estimated and add a degree of uncertainty that could hurt the project's chance for about $500 million in federal assistance. The line's estimated price now is $1.2 billion.
"This could have a significant impact on costs," said Monte Ward, director of special projects for OCTA. "But the biggest concern is on the competitiveness of our project for federal funds. The feds have been skeptical of underground systems because of delays and cost overruns" on projects elsewhere in the nation.
The proposed route goes through the South Coast Plaza and South Coast Metro areas, which are filled with shopping centers, office towers, hotels, condominiums and apartment complexes as well as South Coast Repertory and the Orange County Performing Arts Center. It is one of the busiest retail and cultural centers on the West Coast.
Acquiring the right-of-way alone would be very expensive in the South Coast area, where future developments worth billions of dollars are planned, including expansion of the theater and arts district, city officials say.
CenterLine, with its overhead columns, could present both practical and aesthetic problems for pending projects such as a grand pedestrian plaza in the arts district, they say.
"No question property owners want CenterLine underground," said Paul Freeman, a spokesman for C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, which owns South Coast Plaza and other commercial property in the area. "The city has approved a new high-rise office complex and a five-star hotel. The line could make development impossible."
Also supportive of placing CenterLine partly underground are Sakioka Farms, which owns commercial and agricultural property; Commonwealth Partners, another major developer; the Performing Arts Center; and South Coast Metro Alliance, a group of business and property owners.
Naghavi said the line could be taken underground using a "cut-and-cover" technique in which a long trench is dug, then covered with streets, sidewalks and parking lots. Actual tunneling wouldn't be required. He estimated such a method would add $150 million to $200 million to the total.
Officials from Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and OCTA are expected to discuss the proposal early next week. A final decision to proceed would be up to the authority's board of directors.
Ward said OCTA will seriously consider the city's request. But he defended the elevated plan, saying it would be well-designed and equipped with sleek, aesthetically pleasing rail cars.
Ward said underground construction costs can go higher than estimated if unexpected problems arise or if the subterranean section needs to be longer to preserve access to Bristol Street businesses in adjacent Santa Ana.
"Undergrounding is great, but it can be tremendously expensive," Santa Ana City Manager David Ream said. "Our interest is where do you start on Bristol, and what impacts there will be on businesses. I am sure we will work this out."