Disney Expansion Is Reason for $319-Million Streetcar Proposal

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The castle at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. (Photo credit: Public Domain)

During questioning by Orange County Transportation Authority directors Thursday morning, Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray acknowledged what insiders have been saying for months about the city's planned streetcar project: A major reason for the transit line is to allow expansion of the Disneyland Resort.

West Katella Avenue and West Ball Road Ball, which border the park, are “beyond capacity,” Murray said. “If we're ever going to see a third gate at Disneyland,” she said, “we need to get cars off the road.”

The streetcar project would no doubt accomplish that end, according to a city staff report. Once in the city, visitors could park and be taken via streetcar directly to Disneyland.

Murray's comments, however, highlighted a question that critics of the project have raised: Should $319 million in taxpayer dollars be spent on a 3.2-mile project that serves primarily Disneyland's interests?

It was an issue looming behind many questions asked during a special OCTA board meeting and public workshop regarding proposed streetcar projects in Anaheim and Santa Ana. As expected, OCTA directors challenged the Anaheim project and its defenders, citing the cost of the project and wondering why city leaders didn't choose a much cheaper enhanced bus alternative.

Directors Jeffrey Lalloway and Todd Spitzer — the former an Irvine councilman and the latter a county supervisor — provided the most intense scrutiny. OCTA staff for the first time provided answers to some questions, including factors that contribute to the nearly $100-million per-mile cost of the proposed system.

“The problem is we're spending a lot of not only [Measure] M2 but federal money. I'm an American taxpayer too,” Lalloway said, referring to the countywide ballot measure that allowed a half-cent sales tax for transit improvements.

“I'm OK if it costs more money, frankly, if there are real benefits, tangible benefits I can point to and say this is why I'm doing it,” Lalloway said.

Murray and others have argued that the project will support city growth by improving mobility and will attract economic investment along the route. The streetcar is to provide a “last mile” connection to the transit depot, which is expected to have 19,000 daily boardings by 2035 and increase to 50,000 daily boardings with the completion of the state's high-speed rail line, according to a city report.

However, as a city-hired consultant pointed out, that main reason for having the streetcar — to connect to high-speed rail — depends on a massive project that many see as unlikely to ever be built.

Employment and residential population is projected to significantly increase in the area served by the streetcar, according to the report.

OCTA and Anaheim officials hope to cover 50 percent of the project's cost with revenue from a highly competitive federal grant program known as New Starts. The rest would be paid with local funds, including Measure M2 revenue.

Murray, whose City Council campaign was heavily funded by Disney, was not shy in voicing her support of the proposed project. It's a “big part of growing [Anaheim's] convention center,” she said. The streetcar will “improve the economic vitality” of both the city and the county, and there are federal and state mandates that require the city to take cars off the road, Murray said.

But it was Murray's argument about “choice riders” — tourists from “around the world” — that drew Lalloway into sharp exchanges with the councilwoman.

Murray said that the tourists are looking for permanent tracks. The reasoning for that, city leaders say, is that streetcars attract riders by being, as Spitzer put it, “sexy” or “cooler” than buses.

Lalloway asked if it was appropriate for local taxpayers to be subsidizing tourists' preference for streetcars over buses.

Murray said that the subsidy should be viewed differently. The tourists, by way of their spending at the resort, produce tax revenue for Anaheim and the county, she said.

Lalloway also had an exchange with OCTA's director of rail and facilities, Jennifer Beregner.

Beregner said that a streetcar would more efficiently move people than an enhanced bus system because the streetcar would be on a priority lane, allowing it to skip ahead of other cars at signals, thus getting more people to their destination faster.

Lalloway said that having more buses would transfer more people at a cheaper price. Berenger countered that buses have worse environmental impacts. Electric buses could be used, Lalloway replied.

Spitzer pointed out that there is a “$260-million spread” between the streetcar and the enhanced bus service. The cost difference between the streetcar and the enhanced bus is "alarming,” he said.

Director Miguel Pulido, who is also mayor of Santa Ana, said that successful cities around the world have been using a streetcar to move people. “Part of the reason the voters voted for Measure M2 was we had this [streetcars] as something we had embedded in there, campaigned on and told folks about,” Pulido said.

Yet Lalloway, who is originally from New Jersey, said that cities there abandoned streetcars many years ago. “They move their folks fine,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, the issue, which was debated for more than two hours, remained unresolved.

Spitzer said that he wants every step of the process to have a hearing. And he said he doesn't want Anaheim officials to argue that they've invested too much to stop the project from going forward.

“I can't stand that,” Spitzer said. “It's disingenuous for me as an elected to be in a position like that.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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