Orange County’s transportation agency took control over Santa Ana’s streetcar project this week, with two board members continuing to question whether there are more effective ways to spend the project’s $250 million expected cost.
“I think it’s wildly expensive compared to other alternatives that I think are better,” said Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, speaking as an Orange County Transportation Authority director at Monday’s board meeting.
The county could have electric buses that “look almost like a streetcar, but as demand changes” as years go by you can change the route, said Tait, who is one of the most vocal opponents of a similar and also controversial project in Anaheim.
“It’s wildly cheaper. You don’t have the upfront capital costs,” Tait added. “You could have a system almost countywide.”
Meanwhile, the project’s chief supporter, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, said the streetcar would be a major leap forward to accommodate the growing urbanization of Central Orange County.
“We’re basically setting a framework which I think long term is going to make this county – and I mean this entire county – a better county,” said Pulido.
“We can continue to widen freeways,” he added, but “ultimately we can’t widen freeways forever. We just cant.”
OCTA Chairman Shawn Nelson agreed, pointing to Los Angeles County’s efforts to aggressively expand their light rail network, known as Metro.
“You’re ignoring the facts if you think that their implementation of light rail hasn’t been” the most successful implementation of light rail in U.S., said Nelson.
“The future of this county is employers are going to either be on rail – not because I say so – but because” it’s not realistic not to, he added.
Monday’s takeover was approved on a 13-2 vote, with directors Tait and John Moorlach opposing. Director Janet Nguyen abstained, and Director Frank Ury was absent.
“I just see it as an old technology in a high tech world,” said Moorlach, who is also a county supervisors, pointing to issues like pedestrian deaths due to longer stopping distances than buses. “I see it as a boondoggle.”
Supporters on the board disagreed.
“I would argue with Director Moorlach about the old technology, as you call it. There’s nothing as old as buses,” said Director Jeff Lalloway, who is also Irvine’s mayor pro tem.
“I think this project will over time…prove to be something we’ll be proud of as a board,” said Lalloway.
From here, the transit agency will handle the project’s development, implementation, operations and maintenance.
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.
Nearly all of the five public commenters on Monday supported the project.
“Anything that we can do that can make it really easy and convenient” to reach downtown Santa Ana is “going to be a boon for the community,” said Jon Gothold, a co-owner of DGWB Advertising & Communications on Main Street.
“Santa Ana is at the forefront of being the heart and the soul of Orange County,” said Sean Coolidge, a resident of Santiago Lofts near Santa Ana’s train station.
But Santa Ana resident Steve McGuigen noted that several west Santa Ana residents are concerned about the trolley’s expected prompting of development at the Willowick Golf Course.
Last year, the city of Garden Grove, which owns Willowick, considered selling the course to McWhinney Enterprises, the developers of an upcoming water park hotel in the city.
“The value of the Willowick Golf Course…for a medium density mixed-use development is estimated to be $50 million,” Garden Grove City Manager Matt Fertal wrote in an email to developer Steve Sheldon.
A streetcar stop is planned between the golf course and the Santa Anita neighborhood, and Santa Ana officials have so far been tight-lipped about what type of development could be in store.
“Several of my residents have had concerns about this project,” said McGuigen, president of the Riverview West Neighborhood Association.
“They feel that their area is sort of going to be blighted and the prices driven up,” and that they could be driven out of their homes, he added.
Moorlach, who opposes the streetcar in general, has previously said he wouldn’t be surprised if a back-door deal is in the works for the golf course.
Nguyen noted she’s witnessed such concerns herself, asking whether the city has tried to address the concerns of Westside residents.
But Chairman Shawn Nelson interjected that it wasn’t an appropriate question.
“There may be a multiple of other things going on…but this item is about Project S,” said Nelson, referring to the formal name for transit projects under the Measure M2 sales tax.
Nguyen defended her question, saying it “has to do with the system itself.
“I believe I have every right to ask the city manager…and so I would still like to hear the answer,” said Nguyen.
Regarding blight concerns, Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos replied that the streetcar “actually encourages development.”
As for worries that housing costs would rise near the project, Cavazos committed that “Santa Ana will work with people to make sure we have affordable housing,” without getting into specifics.
To piece together funding for the project, OCTA will now seek federal New Starts funding for the project.
If the Federal Transit Administration signs off, federal grants could cover half of the project’s $250 million projected cost.
OCTA officials are optimistic that the feds will sign off.
Nelson said he met with the federal transit administrator recently in Washington, D.C., who was keenly aware of Santa Ana’s status as one of the densest cities in America.
FTA is “anxious” to be involved in this, said Nelson. “They really understand it and they seem very excited about it.”
From here, OCTA staff plan to prepare a request for proposals for a project management consultant and bring it back to the board for review.
The use of Measure M2 sales tax funds was also approved for the streetcar’s operations and maintenance. It would cover 90 percent of those ongoing costs, until the sales tax expires in 2041. Santa Ana would pick up the other 10 percent.
Moorlach, meanwhile, questioned how taxpayers will react to their M2 transit dollars being used almost exclusively for projects in Central Orange County.
Given Caltrans’ plans to put toll lanes on the 405 freeway after an M2-funded widening, Moorlach suggested that an anti-tax group might run a ballot measure to overturn the tax.
“I’m just worried about the vulnerability” of M2 if “you get enough people frustrated,” Moorlach said.