Moving Placentia beyond OnTrac

Times Staff Writer

For an old railroad town that had had its fill of slow-moving trains rumbling through the city, the ambitious plan to lower the train tracks in downtown Placentia seemed like a natural.

By carving out trenches for the trains to run along, engineers wouldn't have to sound their whistles, traffic wouldn't pile up at intersections to wait for passing trains, and the bulky boxcars would no longer clutter the city's historic Old Town district.

But the $650-million OnTrac project blew up in spectacular fashion, leaving the northern Orange County city on the edge of bankruptcy. Parkland was sold to ease the mounting debts, city employees were laid off, public services were cut. The town's former city manager and public works director were indicted.

And last month, the City Council got a makeover in what may be a final act of burying what some say was the town's greatest folly -- thinking it could engineer one of Orange County's largest capital works projects.

When the ballots in the November city election were counted, one of the chief opponents of the ill-fated railroad plan marked the occasion by unfurling a banner in front of City Hall. "Under New Management," it read.

"The light at the end of the tunnel for Placentia is no longer a train, it's the sunrise," said city activist Craig Green, who co-founded Citizens for a Better Placentia.

Greg Sowards, another founder of the activist group, was elected to the council last month, as was Joseph V. Aguirre, a candidate supported by the group. They join two other foes of the OnTrac project -- Mayor Constance Underhill and Councilman Russell J. Rice. That leaves Councilman Scott P. Brady as the last member of the bloc that supported OnTrac.

OnTrac was terminated late last year after the city nearly went bankrupt trying to fund it, said the mayor, who, with the new council majority, will try to determine the project's complete financial toll.

For the moment, the city is facing a $2.7-million shortfall this fiscal year, which was earlier estimated at $5 million, Underhill said. The city has a $26-million budget, she said.

"We have a lot of hard work ahead of us because we're in a budget crisis," she said, "and we can hardly afford to make any mistakes."

The city plans to hold "team-building" sessions in January with council and city staff to tackle the budget, prioritize projects and initiate recovery plans, the mayor said.

"The financial numbers presented to us so far are unaudited," Sowards said.

OnTrac was an enormous undertaking for a town of 50,000 that wanted to quiet train horns.

Planners had hoped it would also help revitalize the modest Old Town district and improve the movement of freight to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Since the late 1990s, the project's estimated cost nearly doubled to $656 million.

For three years, the city struggled to keep OnTrac afloat during a budget crunch that compelled officials to cut public services, lay off staff, sell parkland and borrow tens of millions of dollars. The council also reduced the project's near-total reliance on expensive private consultants.

The lack of sufficient federal funding ultimately derailed the project.

In March, former Public Works Director Christopher Becker, 46, of Rancho Santa Margarita and retired City Manager Robert D'Amato, 69, of Placentia were indicted on felony conflict-of-interest charges stemming from the controversial rail project. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Becker and D'Amato, who oversaw the formation and operation of OnTrac, are accused of violating state laws that prohibit public officials from influencing government contracts in which they have a financial stake.

Brady, who was mayor the year of OnTrac's collapse, downplayed depictions by activists that the project had led to a civic revolution and a "new City Hall."

"It's my hope we come to grips with answers as individuals and not as a voting bloc," Brady said. "I'm going to vote the same way as I've done in the last six years, and that's my conscience.

"We've tried to correct the mistakes we've made," Brady said, noting they did eventually kill OnTrac, successfully pushed for a railroad quiet zone that is scheduled to take effect next month, and voted for a new Metrolink station in town.

Many residents and business owners say they would like to put the OnTrac mess in the past and move the city forward.

Javier Miranda, who owns El Cantarito, a Mexican restaurant in Old Town, wants the city to pursue more practical projects, such as installing more parking areas in the older commercial district.

"They allowed a large apartment complex to be built nearby, and that took away valuable parking spots," Miranda said. "They've talked about a proposal for some time about a parking structure, and that would be a boost here."

Others such as Craig T. Olson, a longtime Placentia dentist and member of the school board, said he understood the political emotions from Sowards' and Aguirre's council victories.

"But an important part of leadership is to set a unifying tone," Olson said. "I know our city budget has been taxed, but I haven't been affected in a dramatic way. I know that there are many things the city would like to do to help the residents, and it will be a big challenge to do that."


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