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What kind of mobility future does Orange County, California really want?
That's one of an array of questions facing the region's residents after a very mixed, confusing, and conflicted outcome to the June 3rd (2003) vote in the city of irvine on the CenterLine light rail transit (LRT) project being planned by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). As we relate in our story Orange County, Ca: Light Rail Vote Looms June 3rd (2003), the predominantly elevated LRT line was planned to have several stops in irvine, a city of about 143, 000, which was also to be its southern terminus.
But on June 3rd, irvine voters sent an utterly confusing message
by rejecting both the pro-LRT Measure A (which basically
endorsed the project) and the anti-LRT Measure B (sponsored by
Road Warriors and pro-automobile NIMBYs, and intended to kill
the project). With a turnout of 22.6% of the city's 77,178
registered voters, the Measure A vote count was 47.6% in favor
and 52.4% against. For Measure B, it was 48% for and 52%
That basically puts the CenterLine LRT project in a kind of limbo, leaving OCTA planners and Orange County political leaders ruminating over alternatives, as well as the issue of whether the CenterLine starter system could be salvaged without the link into irvine (one of the three major communities on the proposed line).
The irvine vote was actually a revote of the rail transit issue, since the CenterLine project was, in effect, authorized by Orange County's successful 1990 vote for the Measure M half-cent sales tax (which is allocated 3/4 for roads, 1/4 for transit, including what has become the CenterLine project). Since then, transit opponents and highway supporters have mobilized to disparage the project, rail transit (and mass transit) in general, and to try to throw up as many roadblocks to the CenterLine plan as possible.
Last summer, the "Stop CenterLine" campaign picked up steam with the proposal by rail opponent John Kleinpeter and his FAIR (Fund Alternatives instead of Rail) group for a city initiative to ban any involvement by the city of irvine in any new light rail line – a NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) response to OCTA's proposed route through central irvine. With November (2002) elections looming, the following September the irvine city council voted to request that OCTA delete that segment of the CenterLine route, and also promised to put to a popular vote both Kleinpeter's initiative plus a measure asking if irvine voters supported the new CenterLine route as planned by OCTA. These were Measures B and A respectively on Tuesday's ballot.
While Measure B failed, thus removing the threat of a legal constraint on the city's involvement with light rail planning, the failure of an outright endorsement of the project (Measure A) presents a political quandary. The irvine city council now needs to decide how to respond to Measure A's failure.
Irvine Mayor Larry Agran interpreted the vote as "a call for more thinking, planning and information" as the Orange County Register expressed his position.
"it's about listening and learning" Agran told the Register. "irvine's
not out of it. Unless [the Orange County Transportation Authority]
wants to cut irvine out of the planning, I expect we will continue
the dialogue and continue to explore light-rail alternatives."
Support for the CenterLine LRT project seems to persist in the
county, despite the vote, including in Costa Mesa, the city in the
mid-section of the proposed starter route. "In the years that we
have been working on this, we have not had any vocal opposition"
noted councilwoman Libby Cowan, adding that a rail line
connecting the Santa Ana Transportation Center with John
Wayne Airport would be a "big help to our area."
Similar sentiments were voiced by Costa Mesa Mayor Gary Monahan. "The city is officially on board in supporting CenterLine," he said. He agreed that the failure of Measure A "may have changed a little bit of this . . . If nothing else, I think it delays the engineering and the final designs."
However, Monahan added that if CenterLine's ridership numbers
are viable, "I think it will work. It really depends on where the route
will go. The airport is a big part of it."
And Mayor Miguel Pulido, of Santa Ana – the Orange County city planned to be the northern terminus of the starter line – felt that the CenterLine project was still alive despite the confusing irvine vote: "I think the message is that [irvine] needs to do more work."
"I think it's important ... and we're committed to making [rail transit] happen" Pulido underscored. "Once we do the first segment, then others will want to be a part of it. As in other cities, the most difficult thing is to get started. That's what were dealing with, finding a way to get started."
While the irvine vote has cooled enthusiasm on the OCTA board for the LRT project, and fortified the opposition, on June 9th the board voted to keep money for the project in the 2004 budget. Meanwhile, in response to the irvine vote and its aftermath, OCTA planners have been exploring various options in regard to the CenterLine project. These include:
· Cancelling the project completely (this is unlikely)
· Substituting other modes and route alternatives
· Truncating the current route to skip irvine
· Extending the route north, where other cities, such as Fullerton, have expressed more interest in being linked into the LRT system
Artist's rendition of LRT elevated alignment in
Fullerton, one of the communities north of Santa
Ana which have expressed interest in being
connected by CenterLine.
OCTA CEO Art Leahy issued this statement on June 4th, the day after the vote:
Overall, perhaps the simplest outcome being evaluated by OCTA planners might be to complete current planning and simply build the starter line from Santa Ana to John Wayne Airport (north and west of central irvine), but no farther into irvine, with more active and immediate focus on possible extensions north and/or west from Santa Ana. The critical question would be whether such a route would generate sufficient ridership to be cost-effective, particularly in view of the commitment to a predominantly elevated alignment.
In any case, the bottom line seems to be:
· Significant support remains for the CenterLine LRT project.
· Orange County, and the proposed corridor in particular, has sufficiently high density and traffic to justify such an advanced rail transit system.
· LRT, in nearby Los Angeles, San Diego, and elsewhere, has proven it can meet its ridership targets and improve the cost-effectiveness of public transport.
· Mobility in the proposed corridor will seriously deteriorate without the CenterLine project.