Irvine approves bus-rail project

Times Staff Writer

The Irvine City Council on Tuesday approved a $280-million project that planners hope will ultimately become the backbone of Orange County’s first mass transit rail line.

The five-mile route would use a combination of streetcars and buses to connect the Irvine Spectrum to the Irvine train station, the future Great Park and housing developments surrounding it.

On Tuesday, council members voted 5 to 0 to approve the route and the concept.


“Finally we’re making big progress with transit that’s sustainable and makes sense,” Councilman Sukhee Kang said.

According to the plans, streetcars powered by overhead electrical lines will run 3.4 miles through the Great Park to the Irvine train station, where passengers will transfer to a shuttle bus along Alton Parkway to the Irvine Spectrum 1.6 miles away.

The bus portion is expected to be in operation by 2009, and the streetcars by 2012. The goal is to install rail along the entire route and possibly expand it to other parts of Irvine, city officials said.

The hybrid rail-bus line would attract about 5,000 daily riders, officials say. All nine planned stations will be at street-level, except one built into the Irvine train station, where riders will transfer between rail and bus. Part of the bus line will be elevated to cross over Interstate 5, officials said.

The project has a head start -- $121 million in Proposition 116 funding that Irvine will receive from the state.

That money, set aside in 1990 through the Clean Air and Transportation Act, must be budgeted by 2010. The state money must be matched by local funds, which means Irvine still has to find more than $150 million to pay for the project.

Irvine officials envision the rail line as a way to link the city’s train station, heavily used by Metrolink and Amtrak riders, to job centers, shopping areas and future housing developments.

But the new route may also serve as a backbone to a countywide light-rail system.

“We need light rail,” Irvine Mayor Beth Krom said. “If the county is not ready at this point to pursue it, we accept that, but we’re going to advance on our own.”

The streetcars, similar to those used in Portland, Ore., are shorter and narrower than light-rail cars but run on the same width track.

If any neighboring cities develop light-rail systems, they could link to Irvine’s, said Cindy Krebs, the city’s manager of transit and transportation.

Some officials, however, nearly balked at spending so much money on a project expected to serve only 5,000 riders a day.

“I’m not going to commit city funds to a project that might only be benefiting a very small group of people,” said Councilwoman Christina Shea.

She supported the proposal only after city staff promised to bring the council a detailed funding plan.

Key to the rail line’s success will be attracting what transportation planners call discretionary riders -- car owners not normally dependent on public transportation.

“We need to give people a good, convenient, smart alternative to their cars,” said Sarah Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at UC Irvine.

The streetcar plan is considerably more provincial than the CenterLine project Orange County voters rejected in 2003.

That light-rail line would have run from Irvine across Santa Ana to Costa Mesa.

“This line will be very Irvine-oriented until more funds come in and other cities show more interest in expanding it,” Catz said “But it does have to start somewhere.”