In a defeat for Orange County's CenterLine proposal, Irvine voters Tuesday rejected a City Council-backed measure that would have allowed the city to participate in the $1.4-billion light rail project.
Also rejected was a separate anti-CenterLine ballot initiative that would have stripped any reference to light-rail systems from Irvine's general plan.
With all the precincts counted, the unofficial returns show that voters defeated Measure A, which supported CenterLine, as well as Measure B, written by anti-rail forces to halt Irvine's participation in the project. Turnout was 22.6% of the 77,178 registered voters.
Irvine officials say the CenterLine proposal will now have to be reviewed by the Orange County Transportation Authority and could be sent back to the City Council for reconsideration if OCTA decides to proceed with the project.
"This is a setback for CenterLine as proposed by OCTA," said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a light rail supporter. "I wish we would have had a few more votes on our side. I am heartened, however, by the defeat of Measure B."
Light rail opponents said Tuesday night's returns showed a lack of support for the Irvine section of CenterLine, which would run from John Wayne Airport to UC Irvine.
"The city has been unsuccessful, although supporters spent more than $150,000 to get Measure A passed," said John Kleinpeter, head of Fund Alternatives Instead of Rail Transit, an anti-light rail group in Irvine. "This sends a clear message that CenterLine is unwanted."
Ted Nguyen, a spokesman for OCTA, said the light-rail proposal will go back to the board for exploration of options and for considering what the next steps might be with respect to Irvine.
"Obviously, we will look at the votes and come to a determination of what they mean," he said. "This was not the vote we had hoped for."
The Measure A vote count was 47.6% in favor and 52.4% against. For Measure B, it was 48% for and 52% against. As planned by OCTA, CenterLine would run through Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, with major stops at UC Irvine, the Irvine Business Complex, John Wayne Airport, South Coast Plaza, the Santa Ana Civic Center and the Santa Ana train station.
The estimated price tag of $1.4 billion includes $200 million for improvements to Bristol Street in Santa Ana. About $35 million has been earmarked for preliminary engineering, which is underway. If all goes well, planners say, the line could open in 2009.
Funding would come from the county's half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, hundreds of millions in state and federal tax dollars, and $125 million from state rail bonds reserved for Irvine.
Envisioned six years ago as a 28-mile line serving major hubs from Fullerton to Irvine, CenterLine has struggled for public acceptance. Several north Orange County cities dropped out of the project in 2000 because of residents' opposition, causing the proposal to be shelved temporarily.
Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana revived the plan, at a shorter 18 miles, more than a year ago. That proposal has since been clipped to 11.4 miles after residents of several Irvine neighborhoods protested the proposed route.
"Mass transit is long overdue here," said Jerry Gallenson, 47, of Irvine, after casting his ballot for CenterLine. "As people keep moving in, we are going to have gridlock. I think mass transit is something that's inevitable. It is good to be out in front of the issue, rather than a straggler at the end."
Beverly Anderson, 62, who voted against Measure A and in favor of Measure B, said she doubts anyone would use the rail line. "It is a waste of the taxpayers' money," she said after casting her ballot at Irvine City Hall. "People like their cars better."
Anderson's husband, William, 67, voted no on Measure A and no on Measure B. He said CenterLine would not pay for itself, but he did not "want to slam on the door" on future light rail proposals.
OCTA officials have warned that rejection at the polls could imperil the project and force the transit agency to reevaluate it.
Another hurdle, they say, is finding more cities to participate. Supporters note that western and northern Orange County cities have been interested in extensions of the line.
In Irvine, the vote came after a clash of values among constituencies: neighborhood groups wanting to avoid disruption and noise, fiscal conservatives who believe light rail is a boondoggle, and civic leaders who envision a future in which mass transit reduces public reliance on the car.
The vote is important for OCTA, which has worked for six years to make light rail a reality, and for Chief Executive Officer Arthur T. Leahy, who was hired by the board of directors to push the project.
It is also significant for Agran, who helped revive CenterLine and wants it to serve high-density areas of the city.