In a climatic scene of the HBO show “True Detective” season finale — which was shot in Anaheim’s glittering new ARTIC station — one of the main characters sees his chance to bust a corrupt police chief slip away when, after shots are fired, his tape recorder is stomped on as hordes of panicked travelers rush out of the station.
But just like the show’s plot — the big crowd at ARTIC was pure fiction.
The truth is most days at ARTIC, which cost taxpayers $185 million to build, look more like a ghost town than the main train depot of a major metropolis. Recorded ridership numbers continue to be at levels that fall far short of initial projections.
According to figures provided by the Orange County Transportation Authority, there were an average of 923 daily train boardings at ARTIC in June. That represents the highest number of boardings recorded in the six months since the station opened in December. More recent figures weren’t available.
It’s a modest uptick from the 812 daily train boardings reported in January, the first full month ARTIC was open, but not even close to the 3,000 daily boardings projected for the station’s opening day.
In the past, city officials defended the numbers by saying ARTIC is intended to serve riders decades into the future and that the facility is part of the long-term plan to reduce dependence on cars. They reiterated that message when contacted last week about the latest figures.
“Here in California we are limited in expanding our freeways system. There is simply not much room to grow, and that is why ARTIC was constructed now, to meet the demands of businesses commuters and travellers,” city spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “Public transportation will grow in our region, and as the restaurants open at ARTIC, the transportation hub in its full use will also grow.”
Yet, as things stand now the station is running at a multi-million dollar deficit. And it’s becoming more and more likely that the city will have to take money from its general fund, which pays for core services like police and fire protection, to cover ARTIC’s annual operating budget.
Hoteliers offered to cover part of the bill using revenue from a special 2 percent room-tax. But according to the Orange County Register, a $1.4 million shortfall remains.
Crucial to shoring up the deficit is the city’s bid to secure a corporate naming rights sponsor. But without higher ridership numbers, critics question whether the city will be able to make such a deal anytime soon.
“Ridership will be one of the prominent reasons for anyone who gauges a naming deal with the city of Anaheim. People want to make sure it’s a well attended well respected facility, and if it turns out to be a boondoggle no one will want to be associated with that,” said Jeffrey Lalloway, chairman of the Transportation Authority Board of Directors.
Ruiz says ARTIC’s appeal to a potential advertiser extends beyond its riders.
“ARTIC is located in a prime location adjacent to the 57 and 5 freeways, Honda Center and Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Katella Ave. is one of the most widely traveled roads in Orange County. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of cars travel along these corridors, so we believe ARTIC’s appeal is in riders as well as its prime location,” Ruiz wrote.
City officials point to a Register article on the results of a study being done by DKS Associates as evidence that numbers are improving. The consultant found 2,326 people use the station daily when other transit services in addition to rail are included, according to the Register.
But that’s still far short of the 10,000 people city officials said would be using the station on opening day for all transit services.
The Register article claims that 2,326 riders is a major increase from the 821 daily riders recorded at the station soon after it opened. But it should be noted the smaller figure only includes train boardings, while the larger figure produced by the consultants’ study counts departures and arrivals separately, meaning that regular commuters were likely counted twice.
It also includes arrivals and departures for buses and shuttles, meaning a single rider could have been counted three or four times. It’s unclear whether these potential double counts, or even triple and quadruple counts, are deducted from the numbers in the study. City officials said the final study isn’t ready to be released.
Mayor Tom Tait says the latest ridership numbers clearly show constructing the facility was a bad idea. He also pointed out that many seasoned ARTIC riders don’t walk through the facility on their daily commutes. Instead, they park behind the building and close to the tracks to avoid the lengthy walking distance from the building entrance to the actual trains.
“I think we need to go back to the drawing board. We have a very unique, iconic building, and we need to get creative on how to energize it,” Tait said. “There are ways to reprogram it, similar to what they did with the Ferry Building at San Francisco.”
Furthermore, nine months after the station’s opening — its concessionaires, a café and two restaurants — still haven’t opened. And while the state’s planned high-speed rail line should significantly boost ridership, many are doubtful it will ever come to Anaheim.
“The projections for ARTIC ridership were predicated on high-speed rail making its way down to Anaheim, and I think anyone that can do basic math understands that will never happen,” Lalloway said.
Meanwhile, the city is planning another public transportation project that has drawn skepticism. City officials want to build a 3.2-mile streetcar line that connects Disneyland to other major destinations in the city.
At nearly $100-million per-mile, the current price-tag tops a list of streetcar lines across the country as the most expensive. City officials project that 4,200 riders will use the streetcar daily once it opens.
But given how off projections about ARTIC were, critics, including Tait and Lalloway, who sit on a Transportation Authority ad-hoc committee studying the streetcar, question whether those numbers will come true.
“At least we need to learn from this, and not blindly trust those ridership numbers,” Tait said. “Now that we know the actual numbers are nowhere near the projections, to continue to go forward on a streetcar based on the same ridership projections would be unforgiveable.”
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek