Light-Rail Plan May Be Back on Track in Irvine

Times Staff Writer

Less than four months after the demise of the controversial CenterLine light-rail project, a new rail proposal in Irvine is reviving debate about the viability of mass transit in Orange County.

The proposal, which won an initial endorsement from the Irvine City Council last week, would use millions in state money that the city had earmarked for CenterLine to instead help connect the future Orange County Great Park with Irvine’s Metrolink station and the Spectrum shopping center.

The 5 1/2-mile system would be a far cry from the 28 miles of light rail that county transportation officials once envisioned shuttling passengers from hubs like South Coast Plaza, UC Irvine and John Wayne Airport. It would also cost significantly less -- an estimated $210 million as opposed to more than $1 billion for CenterLine.


But Irvine officials hope that, if their project is built and proves successful, it will serve as a model for other cities to follow and eventually link with Irvine’s tracks.

“It is the same product in a different package,” said John Kleinpeter, a leading critic of CenterLine who is closely watching Irvine’s plans. “It just starts in a different place, but it will still be a train to nowhere, just like CenterLine.”

After years of debate, county transportation officials in October shelved CenterLine, opting instead to fund road construction and increased bus and Metrolink service.

The light-rail system, once touted as a symbol of Orange County’s urban maturity, ran into opposition from neighborhoods, who didn’t want it on their streets, and critics who objected to its cost.

But now Irvine wants to use $125 million in state money it got from a 1990 voter-approved bond issue that was to be spent on CenterLine to fund this new idea.

But to do that, the city must match those funds.

City officials say the money could come from either private or public sources, including an extension of Measure M, the county’s half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation projects that is set to expire in 2011.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: The city agreed to spend its state mass-transit money by July 1, 2010, or lose it.

CenterLine’s demise prompted several California cities to ask for Irvine’s unused money, Public Works Director Marty Bryant told council members last week.

Still to be determined is the technology the rail system would employ -- light rail, monorail or a trolley-like system.

Any system would probably be elevated to keep it clear of road and pedestrian traffic, city officials say.

Last Tuesday, the City Council gave the go-ahead to a $5.6-million initial study that will include engineering design, environmental impact and ridership forecasts, among other things.

“This is part of building a more balanced transportation system that includes freeways, tollways, light rail, heavy rail....” said Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, a CenterLine proponent who chairs the board charged with creating the Great Park out of the closed El Toro Marine base. “In a major metropolitan area you need all those modes of transportation.”

But critics of mass-transit rail systems say that in Southern California, where communities and job centers are spread out and people depend on their cars, it makes more sense to widen roads and to invest in rapid bus lines.

“Agran’s approach is a ‘Field of Dreams’ approach,” Kleinpeter said. “Build it and they will come.”

Irvine’s project must still win approval from the Orange County Transportation Authority. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, an OCTA board member, said he welcomed Irvine’s plans.