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While various stakeholders continue to disagree on the merits of Anaheim’s proposed streetcar project, there is no debating that it is the most expensive project of its kind in recent memory.
An analysis by the Orange County Transportation Authority showed that on a per-mile basis, the estimated $319-million price tag on the Anaheim project is higher than any of the last 11 streetcar projects proposed nationwide.
There are a variety of reasons why such a project in Anaheim would be more expensive than in places like Cincinnati and Portland. Labor costs and environmental requirements among other factors make the cost of any construction project in California higher than in other places.
But it’s also becoming increasingly clear that a significant reason for the high cost estimate, nearly $100 million per mile, — is the demands placed upon it by Disneyland and the rest of the city’s resort district.
Consider, for example, that the estimated cost for a proposed streetcar in Santa Ana is $110 million less than Anaheim’s, despite Santa Ana’s project having a planned route nearly a mile longer. Officials in both Anaheim and Santa Ana said they can’t provide more details of the costs until after more detailed engineering.
Anaheim officials acknowledge that factors driving up the cost include a power system that won’t harm the aesthetics of the resort, more vehicles needed to deliver tourists to the resort and higher infrastructure costs required by the resort district’s heavy traffic loads.
And while Santa Ana would be purchasing little, if any, right of way, Anaheim would be spending millions of dollars on right of way, some of which will be expensive because it is in the resort area.
Anaheim’s project will also have “high station costs,” including “a new transit center,” according to OCTA documents.
Streetcars are usually powered by what many consider unsightly overhead wires. Out of concern for the look of the resort, the city is proposing a hybrid system in which there are overhead wires in some parts of the route, but not around the resort, city officials said.
To allow for the hybrid system, Anaheim is projecting a 15-percent premium in its vehicle cost estimates, according to Anaheim Public Works Director Natalie Meeks.
Then there’s the ground infrastructure. According to Anaheim officials, concrete is to be poured along the Anaheim streetcar track to support the high traffic loads attributed to the demands of the resort district. The Santa Ana streetcar would use asphalt, a cheaper alternative that Anaheim can’t use because of the resort’s traffic loads, Meeks said.
And although Santa Ana’s streetcar system is longer, Anaheim’s system would have 10 fixed-track buses, three more vehicles than Santa Ana’s streetcar. The additional vehicles are necessary because Anaheim’s system will accommodate not only local travelers but tourists as well.
Streetcar proponents say that the project will support city growth and increase economic activity because its permanence and look will attract investment along the route. Critics say that the $319-million construction cost is simply too high and that mobility can be improved with a much cheaper, rubber-tire bus alternative.
There is no doubt that Disneyland would benefit greatly from a streetcar system. Disney-backed Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray acknowledged as much at an OCTA board workshop in March. Murray said during the meeting that the streetcar would be essential in taking cars off the road, thus giving Disney the ability to expand the resort and open a third gate.
Meanwhile, community activists and Latino residents argue that the project should not be based on simply what is best for Disney’s bottom line. Too often, they say, city resources go back to the resort district and wealthy neighborhoods of the city while working-class neighborhoods remain underserved.
“If we’re taking yet more taxpayer money to subsidize these businesses, its really not clear that the cost benefit analysis comes out in favor of the people or the community or the neighborhoods,” said Eric Altman, executive director with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development.
While Altman and other community activists routinely call out city officials for kowtowing to the interests of big business, politicians are in general loathe to publicly challenge Disney.
But some OCTA board directors have openly questioned the wisdom of using too much taxpayer money to subsidize Disney’s tourism business. During the March meeting, Murray and Irvine Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, who is an OCTA director, were involved in a sharp exchange over whether the taxpayers should subsidize tourists who don’t want to ride buses and are looking for the glitz of a streetcar.
“Should we subsidize those folks who don’t want to get on a bus?” Lalloway asked.
“They’re subsidizing us with their tax dollars,” Murray replied.
OCTA Board Director and County Supervisor Todd Spitzer at another board meeting said that given the benefits of the streetcar enjoyed by the city’s business interests, “we have a right to know what the business community is going to put on the table.”
The current answer is, not much. According to the city’s alternatives analysis report, 90 percent of the capital costs are to be paid with funds from the Federal Transportation Authority’s New Starts program, Measure M and M2 funds and other federal money.
Under Measure M2 — the countywide half-cent sales tax that funds transportation improvements — the city must provide a 10-percent funding match. According to the report, city officials will be seeking federal and state funds for the match. But they could also use money from a special 2 percent room tax levied on resort area hotels, the report states.
Some revenue from that special room tax is also planned for operations and maintenance costs, according to the report. Beginning in the fourth year of streetcar service, that tax revenue could provide up to $3 million for operations and maintenance, the report estimates.
Disneyland representatives did not respond to requests for comment.