An artist's rendering of a streetcar on Fourth Street in Santa Ana.

When it comes to future streetcar lines in Orange County, it’s become increasingly clear that Santa Ana has the inside track.

While a proposed project in Anaheim faces stiff opposition locally and is apparently getting the cold shoulder from federal officials, the opposite seems to be true for Santa Ana’s proposal.

For evidence, look no further than the interactions county Supervisor Shawn Nelson has had with Washington. In February he said Federal Transit Administration (FTA) officials seem “very interested” in Santa Ana’s project, and that it isn’t just some “futuristic,” or “pie in the sky” proposition.

“I sure feel that this is essentially imminent,” Nelson said. “I’ve been in Washington, D.C.; they seem more excited about this than most things they get excited about on Capitol Hill…we’re not probably 24 months from construction and actually putting this into the ground.”

Such statements stand in stark contrast to what sources say he’s hearing from the feds regarding Anaheim’s project.

Officials say the Anaheim streetcar project is a poor candidate for FTA funds under the highly competitive New Starts program, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Meanwhile, local transit leaders who have qualms with the Anaheim streetcar project are much warmer toward the proposed Santa Ana line.

“The [Orange County Transportation Authority] board has repeatedly voted in favor of the Santa Ana streetcar and yet has told the city of Anaheim to go back to the drawing board and reengineer their project,” said Jeffrey Lalloway, chairman of the Transportation Authority’s board of directors.

The 4.2-mile Santa Ana-Garden Grove streetcar line would run through one of the densest urban areas in the country, connecting the Santa Ana train station to the downtown Civic Center, a government complex that employs thousands of people. It would continue northwest and end at Harbor Blvd. in Garden Grove.

Local officials hope to have the streetcar operational by 2020.

Supporters say the project would spark a boom in economic activity  particularly along less active segments of the route. And there are already some indications of this happening.

Los Angeles-based builder LaTerra Developments, LLC last month purchased a nearly 4-acre site at Harbor Blvd. and Westminster Ave., across the street from the proposed northernmost streetcar station, and announced plans for a retail and apartments development called “The Line at Santa Ana.”

The opposition to the Santa Ana proposal has come primarily from supporters of longtime Latino businesses along the Fourth Street shopping corridor. These businesses could end up being displaced as long periods of construction drive customers away. Residents of the Santa Anita neighborhood adjacent to the planned line have also expressed anxiety about being pushed out.

Dozens of business owners, specifically those catering to working-class Latinos, have signed statements opposing the project.

Local officials say they hope the FTA’s New Starts grant funding will pay for half of the project’s $250 million cost. They say there are several reasons why the project is a sold candidate for funding under the program, which is considered very competitive.

Officials at the Santa Ana City Council’s development and transportation committee meeting Thursday expressed confidence about the Santa Ana streetcar receiving federal money, especially given the news regarding Anaheim’s chances.

“Now that Anaheim is really not going to… receive any federal dollars, it puts us in a better position there,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez at the meeting.

City Manager David Cavazos went even further, saying that the city is a “poster child for federal funding.”

“We will get the funding. I guarantee it,” Cavazos said.

For one thing, Santa Ana is the fourth most densely populated city in the country, city officials say, and the streetcar would serve a population that is highly dependent on public transit.

There are 17,380 people per square mile in the city, and the streetcar would connect to 18 Transportation Authority bus routes, including seven of the busiest bus routes in the county, according to the agency.

Last month, the Transportation Authority submitted a request to enter the FTA’s project development phase under the New Starts program. Entry approval doesn’t mean the project will receive funding, but it’s a significant step toward that goal.

FTA officials wouldn’t comment on the likelihood of the project receiving New Starts funding, saying that evaluation and rating of the streetcar won’t happen until later in the process. The agency is reviewing the Transportation Authority’s request for entry, including new information submitted late last month, according to a statement from the FTA.

“We believe they will say yes because they asked us to submit the letter,” Darrell Johnson, Transportation Authority CEO, said at the Feb. 23 board meeting.

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described the route of Santa Ana’s proposed streetcar line as running along Harbor Boulevard. The route ends at Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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