OC Scratched From First Phase of High-Speed Rail Project

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Orange County won’t be part of the first phase of California’s proposed $68-billion high-speed rail system, the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend.

It’s the second time in a year the county has been moved to the bottom of the construction schedule.

The 2008 voter-approved project requires trains ultimately to run from Anaheim to San Francisco, although they will reach speeds of around 200 miles an hour only in some sections of the Central Valley.

But the project has faced strong political opposition in many areas of Orange County, except for Anaheim, where elected officials have vigorously supported it. In recent years, former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle simultaneously was chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board.

The Times story said dropping Orange County from initial construction knocked $6 billion from the previous $98-billion price tag and added only 10 minutes to the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim travel time.

“Why would we do that, pay $600 million per minute?” said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, to the Times.

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) has tried for months to walk a fine line, neither officially supporting nor opposing the high-speed train with hopes that additional money for commuter trains would be available if construction went ahead.

In March 2011, the rail authority told the county that its section would be “phased in” later.

“The time pressure … is off this particular section,” said Roelof van Ark, onetime CEO of the rail authority. “We have to be sure we do not build too many things that have to be replaced afterwards. This particular section, we know speeds are limited.”

But last fall it appeared Orange County was back on the mainline when a new high-speed rail business plan called for a “blended” system through the urban areas on both ends.

While the change in plans is a setback for Anaheim, it will no doubt be applauded in other corners of the county. Last month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to endorse a bill by Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) that would stop state spending for the train system.

And Orange, just across the Santa Ana River from the planned Anaheim high-speed rail train station, was one of the project’s earliest opponents. The Orange City Council voted in July 2010 to oppose the project, then estimated to cost $43 billion. Officials in Orange cited concerns that taxpayers could wind up carrying the financial burden.

— TRACY WOOD

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