Worried that the CenterLine light-rail project does not have enough congressional support to win federal funding, Orange County transit leaders on Monday began discussing whether the $1-billion proposal should be put to a countywide vote in November.
Orange County Transportation Authority board members plan to consider a ballot measure at their July 16 meeting in an attempt to resolve long-standing concerns that the project should go to the voters.
Such a countywide vote could be risky, however. Though OCTA officials say recent polls indicate people support light rail in general, if CenterLine were rejected by voters it might derail the project.
“The message we are hearing from Washington is that we are not receiving federal funds because of a lack of consensus in the county,” said Cathryn DeYoung, an OCTA board member and Laguna Niguel councilwoman. “I can’t support the project unless we get federal funding. It’s time to fish or cut bait.”
Monday, DeYoung requested that her colleagues discuss a countywide vote as a possible way to bolster federal support for CenterLine if the public approves the light-rail system.
DeYoung said she is concerned that the project does not have enough backing among the county’s congressional delegation to receive the more than $400 million in federal funds the authority is seeking.
As now envisioned, CenterLine would run 9.3 miles from John Wayne Airport to the Santa Ana train station. It would travel through the South Coast Plaza area and the Santa Ana Civic Center, where a spur would take riders to Santa Ana College.
The Federal Transit Administration, which oversees funding for bus and rail projects, has recommended CenterLine for financial assistance. But the actual allocation is determined by Congress, which is grappling with a growing federal deficit and Bush administration efforts to limit transportation money.
Competition for those funds also is expected to be intense as more than $40 billion worth of new transit projects compete for $20 billion that has been set aside for such projects, an amount that could be cut as the federal budget battle unfolds.
While Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have supported CenterLine, most of the county’s congressional representatives have not.
OCTA board members said it appears that only Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim) is seriously backing the proposal. Support has not been forthcoming, they said, from Reps. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), Edward R. Royce (R-Fullerton) and Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), whose district includes the CenterLine route.
Cox could not be reached for comment Monday. But in an interview early this year, Cox said, “OCTA has not built the broad base of support needed to fund the project through completion.”
Cox said a ballot test for CenterLine might be needed to make sure his constituents are behind a project that will cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion.
Though some OCTA directors were open to a countywide vote, others -- such as Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and former board chairman Tim Keenan -- were not.
“I don’t know if a vote will satisfy anything,” Keenan said. “I’m concerned about the lack of congressional support, but other areas of the country have done light-rail systems without unified support.”
Some board members said OCTA polls show that a majority of voters support light rail in general. They also note that in the early 1990s, Orange County passed a ballot initiative setting a sales tax for transportation projects, including urban rail systems.
Although there has been general support for light rail in public opinion polls, CenterLine has been cut from 28 miles to 9.3 miles due to a lack of community and political backing. More than two years ago, the project was shelved until OCTA and the Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana city councils revived it.
Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), a longtime OCTA board member and former Orange County supervisor, said there have been long-standing questions in the county about whether the public really supports CenterLine.
“The project is now on life-support,” Spitzer said. “It is incumbent on OCTA to put this to the voters. We need to get the question out there front and center.”
If the OCTA board approves a countywide vote, it must go before the Orange County Board of Supervisors for final approval. To qualify the measure for the November election, supervisors must act by August.
Last summer, the Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 against the idea of placing CenterLine on the ballot. But Jim Silva, one of the supervisors who opposed the vote, said he is now “very likely” to support it as an OCTA board member.
Silva said he originally opposed the ballot measure as a supervisor because it appeared at the time that CenterLine would obtain federal funding -- a prospect, he notes, that is now uncertain.
Silva declined to comment on whether he would reintroduce the ballot measure to the Board of Supervisors. He said the issue first needs to be discussed by the OCTA board.