Anaheim Council Votes to Continue With Streetcar Despite Lack of Funding

Kaitlin Washburn

Mayor Tom Tait (left) and Councilwoman Kris Murray (right) at a recent city council meeting.

Anaheim City Council members voted Tuesday evening to keep their $300 million streetcar project on life support, despite failing to secure federal funding and a vote by the Orange County Transportation Authority to stop working on the project. 

More than $10.3 million has been spent so far on the project, which supporters say is a vital addition to the city’s transportation infrastructure, connecting the local Metrolink train station with key destinations like Disneyland, the convention center, and Platinum Triangle.

But support for the project has steadily eroded as the city has failed to secure outside funding and questions have been raised about whether there would be enough riders to pay off the expensive project.

The Transportation Authority (OCTA) is focusing its efforts on a streetcar project that would connect Santa Ana and Garden Grove – which is set to receive funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program – the agency has tabled the Anaheim streetcar project indefinitely.

The council's decision came after Mayor Tom Tait, a vocal opponent of the project who sits on the OCTA board, proposed canceling the project entirely.

“I'll make motion, since the funding is not there and the federal government is not going to fund it, [that] this council stop spending money on the planning process or any process on this,” said Tait. “And finally put an end to the street car project and find other alternatives to move people around the resort district.”

But Tait, as has often happened in the past, failed to get support from the majority of the council, who voted to keep the streetcar project alive. Only councilman James Vanderbilt voted with Tait to end the project. Councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring, along with Councilman Jordan Brandman, voted to keep it going.

Murray argued that stopping work on the project now would be a waste of the money spent so far. The city is currently in the process of compiling an environmental impact report, which is funded through a self-assessed tax on resort businesses.

“To cancel funding at this point doesn’t save taxpayers any money but wastes what’s been spent at this point, because we wouldn’t have a completed [environmental impact report],” Murray said.

She argued that there’s no reason for the city to stop planning for the project as the remaining funding for the environmental impact report comes from the Anaheim Tourism Improvement District, which takes money from resort businesses to fund promotional materials for the resort.

The tourism improvement district accounts for $1.7 million in funds spent on the streetcar project so far, while the bulk of the expenses, nearly $8.5 million, were paid for by OCTA. Another $240,000 came from the city’s general fund, according to a staff report. 

Murray also pointed to a recent report on light rail projects by the Orange County Grand Jury, which called efforts by OCTA, Santa Ana and Anaheim to pursuing light rail projects “on the right track,” as an example of strong support for the development of a streetcar in Anaheim.

“I think that’s a pretty fair and objective third party review of this project,” Murray said.

Tait, meanwhile, argued that the streetcar, which moves in traffic alongside cars and buses, would worsen congestion, and that the city and OCTA should focus on investing in its current bus system.

“Imagine if this money was spent on our bus system. OCTA has cut routes 20 percent, ridership has dropped from 68 to 42 million boardings, fares have increased from $1.25 to two dollars, and 60 percent of bus riders have a household income of $20,000 or less,” said Tait. “There’s a big population of folks who need help and don’t have access to a car.”

Tait said he spoke with the executive director of the Anaheim Transportation Network, which coordinates the system of buses that currently serves the resort district. The buses pick up 24 to 40 people a day from the Metrolink station, Tait said.

“The ridership isn’t there, and we’re going to spend all that transportation money that could be used for buses or all sorts of other things?” said Tait.

Although the OCTA board voted in June to table the project, the agency is still studying other transportation possibilities through a study of the entire Harbor Boulevard corridor.

The city also has a cooperative agreement with OCTA, which is the lead agency on any transportation projects for that corridor, that could open up a future avenue for the streetcar project. The agreement is expected to come before the OCTA board in September, said City Manager Paul Emery.

Kring pushed back against Tait’s argument that the city’s Metrolink station, known as ARCTIC, and the streetcar are doomed to fail.

“ARCTIC was built for the future. We can’t build something today and expect for it to have thousands of riders,” said Kring.

Clarification: A previous version of this article reported that the Santa Ana streetcar project has received federal funding. While expected to receive the funding, the project has not received it yet.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.