Political Intrigue Surrounds Anaheim Streetcar Report

If all goes according to plan, a report that recommends terminating Anaheim’s controversial streetcar project should be on the public agenda for next Monday’s regular meeting of the Orange County Transportation Authority Board of Directors.

The key word is should. Ever since the conclusion of a draft of the report was leaked to the Orange County Register, it’s been the subject of intrigue and tension among Transportation Authority leaders. There have also been rumors of an intense lobbying campaign to bury the report.

As things stand now, the report’s findings might never see the light of day.

In various interviews with board members conducted Tuesday, some said the report would be on the agenda, which is typically released the Wednesday afternoon before the meeting. Another board member said the report was definitely off the agenda. And the chairman of the board said everything about the report is still up in the air.

“The ad-hoc committee has not made a final determination about the report or about the date to bring it forward,” said Transportation Authority board Chairman Jeffrey Lalloway, who also heads the board ad-hoc committee that drafted the report.

(Update: The agenda for Monday’s board meeting was made public Wednesday afternoon, and the ad-hoc committee report wasn’t included.)

A Costly Project

Anaheim’s proposed 3.2-mile streetcar system has always been controversial, even before Lalloway’s ad-hoc committee, which was formed specifically to study the issue, began its work. As envisioned, the line would connect Disneyland with the city’s transit center known as ARTIC, and a handful of other destinations.

The initial cost was $319-million, or nearly $100 million per-mile, which when compared to other streetcar projects around the country made it the most expensive by far. Arguments against the project have also gotten a boost from revelations that ARTIC ridership has fallen way below projections.

There is word that the estimated cost is lower than before. Councilwoman Kris Murray was quoted in the Register as saying the project cost has dipped below $300 million after city officials decided not to acquire a hotel that was standing in the way of the project.

One possible reason for all the machinations over the report is that it could threaten much-needed federal funding for the project. Sources close to the issue say the Federal Transit Administration — which streetcar backers hope will pay for half the project’s construction costs under a highly competitive grant program called “New Starts” – won’t approve financing without solid political support on the Transportation Authority board.

Already, sources say, FTA officials believe the project is a poor candidate for New Starts funds. But Anaheim officials dispute this and city Public Works Director Natalie Meeks insists the FTA won’t be considering the ad-hoc committee report as it looks at whether the project meets criteria for funding.

Pringle Looms

Looming in the background is high-powered lobbyist Curt Pringle, Anaheim’s former mayor and arguably the project’s most ardent supporter.

Sources close to the board say Pringle and his firm, Curt Pringle & Associates, have been intensely lobbying board members to support the project. One source speculated that Pringle could have orchestrated a leak of the report, betting that it would end up being buried.

Yet it’s not known whether the report was leaked at all. The Register in its article never stated explicitly that it obtained a copy of the report. And aside from the conclusion not to go forward with the streetcar, the article doesn’t provide any other details from the report.

In a Sept. 16 email to “stakeholders,” Pringle made it clear that the ad-hoc committee was a serious threat to the streetcar project. It was an invitation to a meeting at his office on Sept. 21 to “craft a plan” in light of the fact that Lalloway’s four-member ad-hoc committee was stacked with opponents of the project.

“It seems that this Ad Hoc Committee may try to push the OCTA Board toward stopping the Anaheim project altogether,” Pringle wrote. “That is why it is very important to update the various streetcar stakeholders and craft a plan going forward.”

Lalloway wouldn’t address rumors that the report might be pulled because of political pressure. But when presented with the email from Pringle, Lalloway railed against the lobbyists and streetcar consultants he said are trying to influence Transportation Authority board members behind the scenes.

“It’s disturbing that lobbyists and vendors that can make tens of millions of dollars from this project see fit to lobby board members and scheme in private about how to get this project approved by the OCTA board and don’t care at all about the incredible unnecessary cost to Orange County taxpayers,” Lalloway said.

Board Members Talk

Board members reached for this article denied being lobbied about the streetcar project. But one of them did air some grievances with how the process has played out and the leak of the report’s conclusion.

Board Director Frank Ury, also a Mission Viejo city councilman, said he has been informed that the report would not be on the meeting agenda. Ury said after the Register published its article, which was the first time he had heard about the report’s conclusions, he asked for a copy of the report but was refused.

Ury — who said he supports the project as long as the cost was reduced and it didn’t require aggressive eminent domain — said the situation has left him “not happy.”

“There’s a side conversation going on in the Register that nobody is privy to except the members of the ad-hoc committee,” Ury said.

He also pointed out that the ad-hoc committee meetings have been held in secret.

“I have not had a single thing in three years at OCTA being done and handled this way, where there’s a select few people who know about it, and the media, and the rest of the board is in the dark,” Ury said.

At a meeting of the board’s executive committee held last Monday, Ury said he asked his colleagues to forward the report first to the board’s transit committee before it reaches the full board. That could be a reason the report won’t be on the agenda for the full board, he acknowledged.

Meanwhile, other members of the board’s ad-hoc committee – including Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait and La Habra Councilman Tim Shaw – reiterated their opposition to the streetcar project. Committee member Shawn Nelson, also a county supervisor, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Tait said “without knowing anything else,” he “fully expects” the report to be on the upcoming board agenda, because “the issue and the findings of the committee are very clear.” He said the project doesn’t make sense because the ridership isn’t there for it and it would actually worsen traffic congestion on Katella Ave.

Shaw said as far as he knew the report would be on the meeting agenda but acknowledged that Transportation Authority staff and the board chair were still talking about it.

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