Santa Ana City Council Tuesday night decided on Fourth Street as their preferred route for a streetcar system envisioned to begin transforming the transit landscape in Orange County, despite a signed letter of opposition from businesses along the iconic Latino shopping corridor.

Council approved the route option in a 4-0 vote, with council members Sal Tinajero, Vincent Sarmiento and Roman Reyna absent.

According to a city staff report, the Fourth Street option – chosen over adjacent Fifth Street, which has much less foot traffic – was the better choice because it offers greater economic investment potential, serves more riders, is cheaper and easier to build. 

But many local residents and Fourth Street businesses — including restaurants, bridal shops, travel agencies, jewelry stores, beauty salons and mobile phone shops – are worried that the streetcar construction and loss of parking on the route will drive away customers. Activists working with the group claim to have over 200 signatures against the project.

City leaders envision Santa Ana as the first leg of a larger rail system that would eventually connect central Orange County to Disneyland in the North – where Anaheim is also planning to construct a streetcar route — and, according to Mayor Miguel Pulido, reach as far as Los Angeles.

The 4.1-mile Santa Ana leg would connect west of the city’s downtown core to the train station and then run north to end in a relatively obscure business district in Garden Grove. The project’s supporters say the lines would sow the seeds for an investment boom in areas that, at the moment, don’t look too promising.

“The future of transit is in Orange County. And what better place to have that story than here in Santa Ana?” Said Councilman David Benavides.

To begin that story, the city will need funding and support from various government entities, including the Orange County Transportation Authority Board of Directors – which holds the purse strings over much of the local revenue for the projected $238 million cost — and the Federal Transit Administration.

Santa Ana and Anaheim are both aiming for funding through the FTA’s New Starts program, an extremely competitive transit grant. However, even without federal funds, Pulido said the project could be funded with a combination of Measure M2 – the countywide half-percent sales tax – and other sources, such as state cap-and-trade funds.

At the OCTA level, the majority of board directors appear to back the Santa Ana project. But some directors still have pointed questions, or are outright opposed to the idea of a streetcar, which they say is inferior to rubber-tire bus system and far more expensive.

The OCTA board is set in the coming weeks to approve taking over the project from Santa Ana and signing off on its implementation plan.

Locally, meanwhile, the streetcar remains divided between supporters – including a new wave of businesses credited with making downtown Santa Ana an urban hot spot – and residents and older businesses suspicious that the project is yet another gentrification tool that will ultimately price them out of their homes and commercial spaces.

Sean Coolidge — a Santiago Lofts resident who also helped start the new Downtown Santa Ana Farmers Market – said that streetcar systems in other cities also appeared at first to go nowhere, leading into run down parts of town. But over the years, the light rail attracted massive investment.

“Anywhere we have a system like this setup, it’s pretty kick ass,” Coolidge told the council during public comments.

Other supporters included major downtown property owner Ryan Chase, Chapter One restaurant co-owner Jeffrey Hall, the Teamsters Union, and longtime resident Peter Katz, among others.

But residents of the Santa Anita neighborhood – which is adjacent to the segment running north to Garden Grove and along Willowick Golf Course – say the city didn’t reach out to them about the project and are fearful that the streetcar will push them out of their neighborhoods.

A couple of residents at times heckled the council from the back of the room, with one noting that an official from Cordoba – the company awarded the streetcar planning contract — was in the news for accepting bribes.  

“This is favoring tourists, people with high economic wealth, and is not including individuals that are here, have been here for years,” Cynthia Perez, a Santa Anita resident, said in an interview with Voice of OC.

Pulido said anyone paying attention to the goings-on in the city should have been aware of the project – a city staff report claimed evidence of widespread outreach — which has been in the planning stages for years. And he and City Manager David Cavazos said that no one would be driven out as a result of the project.

Activists outside grumbled that Pulido and Cavazos missed the point. Gentrification would indirectly lead to the ouster of residents due to rising rents, they said.

Councilwoman Angelica Amezcua urged staff to take steps to mitigate construction impacts on local businesses. And she asked that the streetcar operations be adjusted so they don’t disrupt major downtown events, such as the Cinco de Mayo festival, that local businesses worried would be wiped out by the streetcar.

Pulido countered that the momentum on the project needed to keep pace, otherwise the funding cycle for such a project would be missed. The lack of momentum is what killed a previous Orange County light rail project known as Centerline, he said.

“If we don’t get this started, it’s going to go away,” Pulido said. “And it could go away for 30 or 40 years.”

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