The Orange County Transportation Authority is taking over as the lead agency on Santa Ana’s streetcar project, a move that officials say will increase the chances of obtaining federal funding. 

OCTA’s Board of Directors approved the shift Friday morning, with directors John Moorlach and Tom Tait dissenting. They also directed staff to develop a plan detailing how the project is financed, from construction to operations and maintenance.

Two streetcar projects are planned for the county. One system travels between Anaheim’s regional transportation center and the city’s resort district. The other would connect Santa Ana’s downtown core with that city’s train station, and then stretching further on to the Garden Grove city border. 

Supporters of the projects say they will increase connectivity while spurring economic investment along the routes, with businesses encouraged to sprout up due to the permanence of the track. 

Critics argue that streetcars are too expensive – several times the cost of enhanced bus alternatives — and don’t increase ridership enough to warrant the additional spending. Some also argue that placing light-rail cars on public right of way is dangerous. 

Officials in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove hope to obtain funding for the project under the Federal Transit Authority’s New Starts program. That — along with revenue from the countywide half-cent sales tax known as Measure M2 and other local funds – are expected to pay for the projects.

Anaheim’s 3.2-mile project is currently estimated to be $318 million, a nearly $100 million per-mile price-tag that some OCTA directors have demanded be reduced before they can vote for the project. Santa Ana’s system, meanwhile, is expected to cost at least $238 million and have a longer route.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, the project’s most vocal supporter, said at the meeting that OCTA’s takeover was an important step toward creating a regional system, with the Santa Ana-Garden Grove streetcar being the “first leg.”

“I think it’s an opportunity to lead the county into the future,” Pulido said. 

The takeover also comes just as Santa Ana opened up a draft environmental impact report for public review. After certification of the study, OCTA would release $4.88 million for preliminary engineering, according to OCTA documents.

The Santa Ana streetcar as planned would begin operating in 2019.

Pulido and other transit leaders envision connecting the two projects along Harbor Blvd – under the current plans they stop short of each other — and officials are also considering having OCTA take over as lead agency in the Anaheim project.

“Ultimately it should continue north on Harbor Blvd. and get to Fullerton,” Pulido said.

But some directors continue to express reservations. In recent weeks, Pulido and Jill Wallace (whose former last name was Arthur) — an ousted Santa Ana official  who continues serving as Pulido’s assistant — have been taking OCTA directors on personal tours of the route in a bid to shore up support, with mixed reactions. 

OCTA Director Lori Donchack, a San Clemente councilwoman who was already a project supporter, said the tour revealed a “terrific project.”

“It works on the idea of working and living in the zip code, which is an interesting idea,” Donchak said.

Tait, who also went on the tour, said he voted no because streetcars don’t make sense from both safety and financial perspectives. He said he asked Anaheim’s public works director about the stopping distance of a streetcar and was told it is about 320 ft. – the length of a football field.

That’s a dangerous factor considering the streetcars will be traveling on congested roadways, Tait said. Other data provided to Tait by Pulido showed the stopping distance was about 130 ft. and took seven seconds. At 35 mph, Tait said Pulido’s numbers didn’t add up.

“When you think about steel on steel, there’s no friction there, that’s why it takes so long,” Tait said.

Questions also remain about the Santa Ana project’s financing. Moorlach said that after reading up about streetcars, he found that the only project in the country to pencil out was in New Orleans.

Moorlach also asked OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson which agency – Santa Ana or OCTA – ultimately bears financial responsibility for potential cost overruns, with OCTA taking the lead management role.

Johnson said that a detailing funding plan won’t be ready until late Summer, leading Moorlach to ask the question more than once.

“I don’t believe the risk sits with the city of Santa Ana,” Johnson replied.

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