Disneyland Resort officials have had direct iinfluence over the design of Anaheim's proposed streetcar system since its earliest stages and successfully pushed for changes that significantly increased the projected cost of the project, according to consultants reports provided to the city in 2009.
City officials had been considering a segment along Disney Way that included a stop near the resort. But that segment was scrapped in favor of one along Alro Way, which would have the streetcar stop directly in front of Disney's main gate, according to reports from the project's design consultant, PBS&J.
The reports, which were first uncovered by Anaheim activist and blogger Cynthia Ward, also make it clear that Disney had a heavy hand in the design change, which added millions of dollars to the estimated cost of the project, which now stands at $319 million.
"There are several technical disadvantages with the variations on Alro Way that were proposed by Disney, including raising the [Southern California Edison] power lines, significant land acquisition, and possible business relocations," states the report from PBS&J, which has since been taken over by WS Atkins, a British firm.
Specifically, the city must acquire an IHOP restaurant and a hotel and raze both to accommodate the Alro Way option. These properties are among a number of land acquisitions that could cost more than $30 million, officials estimate.
Anaheim officials insist that Disneyland is not controlling the design of the streetcar project. Public Works Director Natalie Meeks goes so far as to say PBS&J's statements about Disney proposing design changes are inaccurate. City officials also said PBS&J had performance problems that were ultimately resolved.
Though the Alro Way route certainly benefits Disney, the design change was entirely in the hands of city officials, Meeks said.
“Absolutely, honestly, not proposed by Disney,” Meeks said. “Disney did participate with us in some of those design charrettes [meetings] to see how that connection would be made on their property. … I'm sure at the end of the day, Disney probably prefers [the Alro Way segment], because it has a station closer to the main gate.”
The decision was driven by the difference in the streetcar's estimated ridership when comparing the two routes. The fact that the Disney Way route does not have a stop directly in front of the mega-resort's main gate causes the ridership number to drop so low that it is not feasible, said Meeks and other officials.
While making this claim, however, Meeks acknowledged that the city has not actually commissioned a specific ridership comparison for the two routes and instead based the decision on ridership estimates for a proposed monorail system that was eventually scrapped in favor of the streetcar plan.
Dennis Newjahr, the PBS&J project director at the time, and other Atkins officials did not return messages seeking comment. Disney officials also did not return calls for comment.
The proposed streetcar system would connect a future transit depot with key destinations in the city, including the city's convention center, the Platinum Triangle development, the GardenWalk outdoor mall and the resort. Supporters say it will increase connectivity and spur economic investment.
Critics of the project, which include some directors of the Orange County Transportation Authority or OCTA, have openly questioned the project's price tag, an amount that breaks down to nearly $100-million per mile of route. OCTA documents show that Anaheim's proposed streetcar topped a cost comparison involving 11 other streetcar systems across the country.
As Voice of OC has previously reported, demands from Disneyland have certainly increased the estimated cost of the project.
The increased costs include: a power system that eliminates overhead electrical wires in certain areas so they won't harm the aesthetics of the resort; a higher number of train cars so the system can deliver tourists to Disneyland; and higher infrastructure costs because of increased traffic in the resort district.
These realities have led Ward and other activists to argue that if Disneyland has driven up the cost of the project and would likely profit handsomely from it, the company should be asked to shoulder some of the costs.
“What it clearly says to me is that corporate activists get more attention from this City Council than community activists,” said Jose Moreno, president of the grassroots Latino group Los Amigos of Orange County.
This contention gained traction in March when 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.
The batch of documents uncovered by Ward are leading to more concern among officials.
“I've asked questions about the cost repeatedly since this came to our attention, and I've never heard that we were going to have to condemn a hotel,” said OCTA Director Jeffrey Lalloway, an Irvine city councilman critical of the project. “That is information that is relevant to the board decision. We should have known about it prior to Cynthia Ward disclosing it.”
Ward's position is that taxpayers shouldn't be paying anything toward a project she says only benefits Disneyland. And she said Meeks' contention that the consulting reports are inaccurate doesn't make sense.
“What kind of a terrible manager allows her consultants to turn in progress reports that become part of the permanent record if she knows there are factual errors in that reporting?” Ward said.
How Disney Played a Role in the Design Change
The Alro Way route calls for a station to be built directly across Harbor Blvd from the Disneyland welcome sign. Riders would then be escorted over the street via an aerial walkway.
It has always been the better choice, Meeks said, except that the IHOP and hotel are currently in the way.
“Certainly the easy answer, the cheaper answer, was to go down Disney Way where you already had public right of way,” Meeks said. However, “it was a huge goal to construct a system that is going to be successful … and that means dropping people off where they're going.”
It is clear from other consulting reports that city officials were unhappy with the design on Disney Way. A November 2009 report from the project management consultant, IBI Group, states that city officials were dissatisfied with the Disney Way design because it “disregarded City direction on Urban design and structural design solutions that would promote the resort and pedestrian-orientation of the Anaheim Resort.”
Yet other IBI Group reports show that Alro Way didn't become the preferred route alternative until after a series of meetings where Disney's concerns were at the very least expressed, including an Oct. 20, 2009, follow-up “Disney charrette” to “evaluate alignment options.”
And during conceptual engineering meetings in December, an IBI report states that “Disney appears to rule out” having an operations and maintenance facility at a parking area known as the Pumbaa lot near Disney Way because the resort didn't want to lose parking spaces.
Instead, the operations and maintenance center is now planned to go at the site of a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office building north of Alro Way. City officials acknowledged that the city must also purchase this building under the current plan.
In response to the December conceptual engineering meetings, the “City directed the Design Team and [IBI Group] to look at a preferred alignment that runs North of the Pumbaa lot,” the December 2009 IBI Group report states. Disney Way is just South of the lot.
Meeks said that the Pumbaa lot isn't a good location, regardless of Disney's concerns.
“The Pumbaa lot isn't immediately adjacent to Disney Way. It's separated by the Edison property, so it's a little more complicated than that,” Meeks said. “I'm not even sure if we could maneuver around the Edison poles. … It just seems a little complicated.”
No Surprise Here
Most OCTA directors said they weren't taken aback with the information in the reports.
“Does it surprise me that Disney has input? I think if you did some checking you'd find that just about every major business had some input,” said OCTA Director Frank Ury, a Mission Viejo councilman.
Moreno wasn't surprised either but said the city should be negotiating community benefits with Disney, such as living-wage jobs, in exchange for such a major public investment.
“If they believe in the project and how much it will benefit their bottom line, then they should contribute some of their bottom line to the project,” Moreno said.
At a recent board meeting, OCTA Director Michael Hennessey also publicly asked for Disney to chip in.
“There is a huge demand for transportation to Disneyland. From that perspective you have to be realistic and acknowledge that,” Hennessey said in a Voice of OC interview. “Nevertheless, they are a major stakeholder, and I'd like to see some support from them.”
The vast majority of the project is planned to be funded by the countywide half-cent sales tax known as Measure M2 and a competitive federal transit grant known as New Starts.
City officials have argued that Disney is contributing its fair share through a special 2 percent room tax paid by guests at resort-area hotels, some of which are owned by Disney.
The city is required to allocate a 10 percent match under the Measure M2 funding program, and as of October 2013, $1.2 million in funds from the tax will have been allocated to the project, according to an email from city spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz.
Meeks acknowledged that revenue from the special tax won't cover the whole match, and officials have yet to identify where the rest of the funds will come from.
Ward said she knows where the money will be coming from. “The vast majority of the system is on the backs of the taxpayers,” she said.