Anaheim transit project goes retro with streetcars


It’s a city where tourists can spot a monorail slithering overhead, where construction is underway on an expansive transit hub envisioned as a cathedral for transportation, and where hopes run high that hordes of passengers will one day blast into town on a high-speed rail.

But the latest transportation project in Anaheim sounds decidedly old-school in comparison: streetcars.

Orange County’s largest city is now moving ahead with plans for a 3.2-mile trolley car system that would connect the city’s resort district with its sports stadiums, convention center and regional transit center — an airy, arched structure made of steel — that is taking shape.

These streetcars, however, would be much more sophisticated than the antiquated wooden trolleys of old. Officials described the newer generation of vehicles as sleeker, with low floors and wider doors to be more accessible.

“They’re very different from what you’d call the old-style streetcar,” said Natalie Meeks, Anaheim’s city planner. “It’s not what you’d remember from the ‘40s.”

Proponents cited similar projects elsewhere that have been considered successful, with ridership figures exceeding projections: Portland, Phoenix, Tampa.

They see the streetcars as an attractive transportation option in one of the county’s most congested areas, and one that would help incubate a walkable environment — and would generate notably higher ridership than buses would.

Some city leaders, including the mayor, see a need for additional transit options, but have hesitated getting behind the project because of its immense cost — more than $318 million — and fears that the city was jumping the gun before the money had even materialized.

“It’s a nice thing to have in your city,” said Mayor Tom Tait. “My question was, how can we afford it?”

Meeks said officials were anticipating that half the money would come from federal grants, and another chunk — at least an additional 40% — would come from local tax measures supporting transportation.

The concern of those who voted against pushing forward with the project — the mayor and Councilwoman Lorri Galloway — was the remaining sliver of money and whether the city would need to tap its general fund to fill the gap. Tait also expressed worries about the operational costs, and what financial commitments the city would make by investing in a project expected to be at work decades into the future.

The mayor said he’s worried the project hasn’t been fully thought through.

“I don’t know what the rush is to do it,” Tait said. “Wait a couple months to get more answers.”

A transit project to help move people between the bustling sections of Anaheim has been discussed for years, and the city has researched various options — the streetcar among them.

Meeks said that initially the idea was for a monorail, but studies showed that it would be considerably more expensive. Buses would have been cheaper, she said, but projected ridership of the streetcars exceeded the buses by 20%.

Councilwoman Kris Murray said that city officials have already discussed the options extensively and that she wanted to avoid any delays in applying for the federal grant money that would be essential to the project.

She said the streetcar project should be completed — it’s scheduled to be operational by 2018 — without the city having to dip into the general fund.

Murray, who with three fellow council members voted in favor, contended that the streetcar project is of “paramount importance” to a city that draws about 20 million tourists each year.

The mayor doesn’t disagree. He said he’s a “rabid defender of our general fund, “ and he’s dogged about making sure the funding comes together.

“If it doesn’t cost the city money, if it improves traffic and won’t cost us money in the future — that would alleviate my concerns,” Tait said. “If it doesn’t, we need to look at other kinds of options.”