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Orange County’s planned mega transit center questioned

Some prominent Orange County officials are questioning the wisdom of building a long-planned mega transit center in Anaheim that would help deliver tourists to Disneyland and link local rail and bus services to the state’s proposed bullet train.

Several board members of the Orange County Transportation Authority say they doubt that the so-called ARTIC station is eligible to receive about $99 million currently earmarked for the project from a county half-cent sales tax. They say the Measure M road and transit money should be used to pay for improving existing stations, not building new ones.

They also assert that if the state’s high-speed rail project is canceled because of money problems, it could turn the $184-million station into a white elephant. According to ARTIC’s environmental impact report, about 90% of the station’s train passengers would come from high-speed rail.

Orange County Supervisor and OCTA board member Shawn Nelson said he plans to raise these concerns and others at an OCTA committee meeting Thursday. The full board is likely to address the matter Jan. 24.

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If the Measure M funding is reversed, it could significantly delay or even scuttle construction of the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which has been planned for more than 25 years as a centerpiece of the city’s redevelopment efforts.

The concerns come only days after the station’s biggest advocate, Curt Pringle, was forced to give up his OCTA seat upon being termed-out as Anaheim mayor.

Pringle continues to serve as chairman of the California High- Speed Rail Authority, however, and he reacted with dismay over questions being raised about ARTIC after years of discussion.

“So every past OCTA action, and there are dozens of them, are they all wrong?” Pringle asked. “All the prior decisions have qualified the project for Measure M funding. A majority of the OCTA board has taken the steps to move forward.”

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Indeed, the OCTA has already spent more than $43 million in Measure M money on ARTIC’s development, including $32 million to buy the site as a high priority in its county transportation network.

Anaheim Public Works Director Natalie Meeks also said the assertion that the funding of ARTIC conflicts with Measure M guidelines has never been brought up before. The proposed transit center would replace an existing Amtrak and Metrolink rail station only a short distance away. Meeks added that the new ARTIC platforms would extend to the current station.

Even if the high-speed rail project were cancelled or substantially delayed, supporters contend that there would still be enough demand to justify the project. City officials said the ARTIC station is currently designed to handle local needs and facilities for high speed rail could be added later.

“I don’t anticipate them being successful in derailing the project,” Meeks said. “Legal counsel has looked at this over the years and there has never been any question.”

Nelson saw the station issue differently.

“Locating a station there is in conflict with Measure M. You must modify an existing Metrolink station,” he said. “I don’t think the construction of ARTIC represents the improvement of an existing station. If anything, Anaheim is abandoning an old station and building a new one.”

The city’s current train station, which serves Metrolink and Amtrak passengers, is a modest stucco building on the north side of the Angel Stadium parking lot and west of the 57 Freeway. ARTIC would be built on the east side of the freeway next to the Santa Ana River and near the city’s Platinum Triangle redevelopment zone.

The proposed station would stand as a monument to mobility. Its cavernous interlocking concourses with arching roofs of glass and steel would allow trains to come and go from tiers. Transit ways, bus facilities and bicycle racks would be built outside.

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There would be easy access to freeways, Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, home of the Anaheim Ducks hockey team. Plus, the city is considering an elevated rail system that would connect ARTIC to major destinations in town, including the Disney resort complex and the city’s convention center. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

According to its guidelines, Measure M established a competitive program for local governments to convert Metrolink stations into regional gateways that can accommodate high-speed trains. The three main objectives call for the improvement of existing stations, the expansion of transit options for regional travel and projects related to the initial segments of high-speed rail service where feasible.

Anaheim is the southern terminus for the first phase of the bullet train, which would run about 500 miles from Southern California to the Bay Area. The estimated cost is about $43 million.

Though he has voted for some ARTIC measures since 2007, Orange County Supervisor and OCTA board member John M.W. Moorlach — an opponent of high-speed rail — said he has serious questions about providing more money for the Anaheim project.

He noted that one proposed route for the bullet train would run on tracks that would be separate or “exclusive” from Metrolink and Amtrak rails so it could run faster and go over or under streets. But complications of crossing the 57 Freeway could preclude the exclusive route from reaching ARTIC, he said.

Those engineering and cost concerns have prompted the high-speed rail authority to consider shelving the exclusive route in favor of sharing the existing corridor with Metrolink, Amtrak and freight railroads.

If the tracks are shared, high-speed trains won’t travel much faster than conventional trains, which experts say can be improved to increase their speed.

“What is the point of doing high-speed rail when you can get the same performance with the equipment you now have?” said Moorlach, who added that he is looking forward to the funding debate. “There are some very compelling arguments.”

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Pringle dismissed the notion that it would be better to improve conventional rail service instead of operating high-speed trains along a shared route.

Passengers would benefit, he said, from a seamless ride that would not require changing trains at Union Station in Los Angeles to get to Anaheim. Tax dollars would be saved, he added, because projections indicate that the high-speed system eventually would operate at a profit, eliminating the need for government subsidies, on which Metrolink and Amtrak rely.

The Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, however, has called the high-speed rail projections unreliable. Nelson and other critics further point out that billions in taxpayer dollars are already being earmarked to begin building the state’s high-speed rail system.

“They want a seamless link, but at what cost?” Nelson said. “Debt is a major state and national issue. If it costs a few billion just to avoid a transfer, it would be better to take a plane. It’s not efficient sometimes to accommodate everyone’s design.”

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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