An artist's rendering of a streetcar in downtown Santa Ana.

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A consulting firm connected to Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido that was awarded a controversial consulting contract for the city’s streetcar project has been quietly excluded from a new round of contracts as the proposed light rail system rolls closer to construction.

In 2009, Pulido led a push to award a $4.85 million streetcar planning contract to Los Angeles-based Cordoba Corp., despite the fact that city staff had ranked the firm last among the contractors bidding for the project.

Cordoba was an early supporter of the mayor, and in the 2010 mayoral race donated thousands of dollars to a fund that helped Pulido defeat his challenger, criminal defense attorney Alfredo Amezcua.

The 2009 contract triggered a grand jury investigation that found the contract was improperly awarded. Former Planning Director Jim Ross criticized the contract award in a city memo and resigned shortly thereafter.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has since taken over the project. And at its regular meeting Monday, the Transportation Authority’s board gave the go ahead to a team that doesn’t include Cordoba to “provide plans, specifications and estimates” for the project, which has since been dubbed the OC Streetcar.

The team is headed by Santa Ana-based HNTB Corp., which received the highest score among three bidders from a Transportation Authority evaluation committee. The team involving Cordoba was again ranked last, but this time was not chosen.

Nonetheless, there were whispers that Pulido was going to push for Cordoba to be included as a consultant with the winning team.

Transportation Authority board members, including Pulido, either didn’t return calls for comment or refused to talk about the issue on the record.

When asked about Cordoba, Board Chairman Jeff Laloway said only that the board “chose the strongest company to be the lead designer for the project.”

At last week’s board transit committee meeting, committee member Tim Shaw asked whether the contract award could be delayed. Transportation Authority staff responded that the project was on a short timeline in order to receive federal grant money, which is expected to pay for a large portion of the $288-million project.

Transportation Authority CEO Darrell Johnson said officials were looking at getting into the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts grant program by January 2017. But earlier this year FTA officials asked that the project be fast-tracked for entry in early 2016, in time for President Obama’s budget.

“I think any delay associated with that would give the FTA some doubt about how serious we are with the project,” Johnson said.

Last week’s committee vote was at first taken without Pulido, who said he was outside talking on the phone during the vote. But later he showed up and requested a revote so he could make the motion to approve the team and participate in the decision.

Pulido didn’t mention Cordoba’s exclusion.

“I’m very excited about this project,” Pulido said. “I want to see it done even earlier.”

Meanwhile, the odds of actually constructing the 4.2-mile streetcar line – which is planned to connect the city’s train station with the downtown core — are looking increasingly better.

Several sources close to the Transportation Authority have reported that federal officials are eager to fund the project. Pulido at the transit committee meeting said FTA officials are doing “cartwheels” over it.

The project has entered its design and planning phase and is expected to break ground by 2017, with the project operational by at the earliest 2019. Last month, the OCTA board allocated $56 million to the project.

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

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