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The Orange County Transportation Authority Board of Directors Monday postponed for at least two months a pivotal decision on whether the agency would continue supporting the controversial Anaheim streetcar project.
Delaying the decision came after directors argued over, at times passionately, the faults of the streetcar and the secretive process of a board ad hoc committee that recommended derailing it. The committee became the subject of political intrigue when its findings were leaked to the media before other directors could be briefed.
The now postponed decision is key because Transportation Authority board support could mean the difference between building the 3.2-mile streetcar project — which would connect Disneyland to the city’s transit hub known as ARTIC — and scrapping it altogether.
To cover the projected $300-million cost of the project, Anaheim officials will likely be asking the agency for a slice of the ongoing revenue from Measure M2, a half-percent sales tax passed by voters in 2006 that funds transportation improvements. The amount of that ask will likely be much higher if, as expected, the city’s request to finance half the project cost with federal funding is rejected.
The four-member ad hoc committee — appointed by board Chairman Jeffrey Lalloway and composed of streetcar critics Tom Tait, Tim Shaw, Shawn Nelson and Lalloway – recommended that the full board formally ask Anaheim to quit the project and direct Transportation Authority staff to study other transit options.
The board’s vote on adopting the ad hoc committee’s recommendations was a split 9-6. Among those voting yes were: Mike Hennessey, Michelle Steele, Gary Miller, Lalloway, Tait and Shaw. The no votes came from: Nelson, Lori Donchak, Miguel Pulido, Andrew Do, Steve Jones, Jim Katapodis, Frank Ury, Greg Winterbottom and Lisa Bartlett. Director Al Murray was absent, and director Todd Spitzer chose not to vote.
Directors who voted no on adopting the ad hoc committee’s recommendations said they didn’t have enough information to oppose the project, so the vote reflected indecision rather than a stance in favor of the project.
“You’ve got to be kidding me that I’m going to make a $200 million decision… on six paragraphs,” Ury said in reference to the staff report on the ad hoc committee’s findings. “It’s disrespectful that I’m being asked to vote on something with so little information.”
Nelson’s vote against the ad hoc committee’s recommendations came as a surprise to some because he had served on the ad hoc committee. Nelson said he was still opposed to the project but uncomfortable with a recommendation to terminate a cooperative agreement between the Transportation Authority and Anaheim and asking the city to stop work on the project.
Spitzer, who is also a county supervisor, decided not to vote, he said, because it forced him to take a stand on whether the project is a “boondoggle” before he had enough information to have such an opinion.
“Sometimes we need to have the courage to stand up and do things that are right,” Lalloway said.
Monday’s heated debate should have been expected given the controversy that has shadowed the project since it was first proposed.
An environmental study for the project that was supposed to be completed last December was delayed after a hotelier strongly opposed plans to demolish his hotel so a streetcar stop could be placed across the street from Disneyland’s main gate. City officials have since decided to alter the streetcar’s route so it doesn’t go through that property.
Another issue has been the streetcar’s projected price tag, which, at nearly $100 million per-mile, would make it the most expensive in the country, according to a Transportation Authority study.
But perhaps the most glaring point of all for critics is the fact that the taxpayer-funded streetcar seems intended to serve the interests of only one business – Disneyland
The sentiment was voiced by most of the nearly dozen residents who spoke during public comments. The session revealed a clear fault line between residents — who all opposed the project — and city officials and representatives of the city’s tourism industry.
Eugene Hung, a 12-year resident of La Habra, asked the board to ditch the streetcar proposal and focus more on expanding bus transit for people like his father, who rides the bus four hours a day, three times a week just to get back and forth from work.
“Such investment would represent a common good instead of a corporate benefit,” Hung said.
Lalloway kicked off the board discussion by framing the decision as a moral choice between the working poor of Orange County and the multi-billion dollar corporation. Lalloway asked how directors could “look at yourself in the mirror” if they vote to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the streetcar and then take another vote scheduled in the coming weeks to cut back bus service.
Lalloway also said his “jaw dropped” when Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray, who is close friends with Disneyland’s chief lobbyist, spoke to the board in 2013 and said that the streetcar would be needed so Disneyland could open a third gate and one day build another theme park.
“If that’s true, this rises to a level of corporate cronyism I have not seen in my five years on this board,” Lalloway said.
Murray, who was present at the meeting, responded to Lalloway by saying she was making a point about a “larger economic strategy” that benefits the whole county.
“I did not make this project about one company,” Murray said.
Tait, who is also Anaheim’s mayor, said the decision needed to be made so that residents and city officials knew where the Transportation Authority board stands on the project, which he argued wasn’t in the “common good.”
He said that ridership would be anemic and pointed to a resort bus system that has a route between ARTIC and Disneyland and the Convention Center, closely mirroring the proposed streetcar route. That bus serves at most 40 people daily, Tait said.
“This one I don’t see how anybody, unless you’re making money, you’re a special interest, I don’t see how anyone could be for this,” Tait said.
Some directors who wanted to postpone the decision said they felt the ad hoc committee had unfairly framed the decision.
Do, also a county supervisor, said the facts weren’t there yet to make a decision. And he criticized the ad hoc committee process as “manipulative” and intended to deploy greater leverage in advocating abandoning support of the project.
Do went on to say that members of the ad hoc committee tried to “assume a moral high ground that is not part of this process.”
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek