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The Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors Monday allowed Anaheim access to more funding so city officials can complete an environmental study for a streetcar project, despite ongoing concerns from several directors about the project’s high cost.
Directors are also increasingly asking why Disneyland isn’t contributing toward the $319-million cost. The resort is a major beneficiary of the 3.2-mile streetcar system, which would move riders between the resort and a planned train depot, among other stops.
The OCTA board overwhelmingly voted in favor of advancing the project, with the only Jeffrey Lalloway, Matthew Harper and John Moorlach dissenting. Directors postponed the vote at last month’s meeting, because they were uncomfortable with a proposed action to “concur” with the Anaheim City Council’s choice to pursue a streetcar rather then a much cheaper enhanced bus service.
In approving an alternative action this week to allow Anaheim to move forward with its environmental study and conceptual engineering, directors said they hoped the studies would provide answers to a number of questions about the project. They left available the option to withhold future funding for the project if the cost isn’t reduced and federal grant funding doesn’t materialize.
“More information is never a bad thing, at least not in my propeller-head little world,” said Director Frank Ury, a Mission Viejo councilman. “From my standpoint, this is a data point, and we need to move forward.”
Some OCTA directors have challenged the cost of the planned streetcar system, questioning the financial sense of casting aside the bus alternative, which is projected to be $263.4 million cheaper to construct.
Proponents of the streetcar project say it will support growth and increase the county’s economic activity more than an enhanced bus alternative, because the permanence of the track will be attractive to investors and increase surrounding property values.
However, it is easily among the most expensive big-city streetcar projects in recent times, according to an OCTA cost comparison of the last 11 such projects nationwide. The streetcar project in neighboring Santa Ana, for example, is estimated at $110 million less than Anaheim’s, despite Santa Ana’s project having a planned route nearly a mile longer.
Also, Anaheim blogger Cynthia Ward revealed during Monday’s meeting that under the current plan the city would have to purchase property between South Clementine Street and Harbor Boulevard in order for a streetcar station to be built adjacent to Disneyland. An IHOP restaurant and a Best Western hotel are located on the properties.
Ward said the cost of acquiring those parcels via eminent domain is one of the reasons for the project’s high price tag.
Anaheim Public Works Director Natalie Meeks confirmed Ward’s assertion but said that an exact description of the property Anaheim would purchase hasn’t been compiled, so it’s premature to say what property would be acquired.
Nonetheless, Meeks said, city officials have studied other, longer routes, but they didn’t seem to make sense. Total right of way costs stand at over $30 million, she said, but the cost of the portion near Clementine hasn’t been defined.
“We believe it’s important to put a station near Disneyland,” Meeks said. “We need to get the station near the front gates where the people are actually going to get this to work.”
Ward’s revelation is the latest indication that demands placed upon the project by Disneyland and the rest of the city’s resort district are a big reason for the high price tag.
Among other factors that Anaheim officials acknowledge have driven up the cost include: a power system that eliminates overhead electrical wires in certain areas so they won’t harm the aesthetics of the resort; a larger number of train cars so the system can deliver tourists to Disneyland; and higher infrastructure costs because of increased traffic in the resort district.
In March, Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray acknowledged at an OCTA board workshop 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.
Although local elected officials are generally loathe to challenge Disneyland, OCTA directors are beginning to openly question whether the megaresort should shoulder some of the costs.
“I’d be curious to see what their contribution could be to the cost and operation of the system,” said Michael Hennessey, one of the board’s unelected members. “If the answer is zero, I think that tells us something.”
Hennessey asked that OCTA officials ask Disneyland what the resort would be willing to chip in.
As things stand now, the vast majority of the project cost would be paid by revenue from the county’s half-cent sales tax known as Measure M2 and a highly competitive federal transportation grant program known as New Starts. Resort area hotels would be paying toward operations and maintenance with a special 2-percent room tax.
Beginning in the fourth year of streetcar service, that tax revenue could provide up to $3 million, according to a project report known as an alternatives analysis.
Regardless of questions about cost, board directors who stood clearly in favor of the project said that Measure M2 called for such projects and are essentially promises to the voters. They also noted that there is projected to be $1.3 billion in M2 funds, more than enough to cover the streetcar projects in Santa Ana, Anaheim, and other projects and still have a surplus.
“I don’t think there could be anything more salient then that,” said board Chairman Gregory Winterbottom. “There’s going to be a lot of money leftover.”