Transportation Officials Debate Bus or Streetcar Service for Harbor Boulevard

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

An Orange County Transit Authority headquarters in Orange.

Increased bus service and new streetcar routes are on the table as Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) officials study options for one of the county’s busiest bus corridors, Harbor Boulevard.

The $640,000 report, prepared by STV Inc. and four other subcontractors, has its limitations. It is assumed in the study that all of the project options would take place without widening Harbor Boulevard and the study does not look at impacts on existing traffic.

Darrell Johnson, the agency’s CEO, said the ridership projections are not “investment-grade” studies.

“This is a conceptual level [analysis],” Johnson said.

The final draft of the Central Harbor Corridor study, as presented to OCTA board directors last week, compares twelve different options for bus and streetcar routes on or adjacent to Harbor Boulevard. Of those options, three streetcar routes and two bus rapid transit routes (a faster bus service where the bus travels in its own dedicated lane) were ranked in the top five.

  • Harbor Rapid Streetcar: with a total score of 74, this option received the highest rating in the Harbor study. This route is the only proposed streetcar option with a dedicated lane. This option ranked highest in terms of transit performance, connectivity and user experience.
  • Tied for second place is the Harbor Long Streetcar and Harbor Bus Rapid Transit with a score of 73 points. While the Harbor BRT option operates in its own lane, the Harbor Long Streetcar travels with traffic. The Harbor BRT ranks highest of all options for cost effectiveness.
  • Anaheim-Lemon Streetcar: this streetcar route, with a score of 68, would begin on Lemon Street near the Fullerton Transportation Center and continue onto Anaheim Boulevard. It shares a lane with traffic.
  • Anaheim-Lemon Bus Rapid Transit: this option follows the same route as the Anaheim-Lemon streetcar, but has a bus with its own dedicated lane.

After OCTA gathers feedback from the four cities along the corridor, the report will come back before the board for them to decide whether to select any of the proposed projects for further study.

Click here to view diagrams of each project alternative. 

For the past two years, transportation officials have studied an eight-mile stretch of Harbor Boulevard from Fullerton on the north, through Anaheim and ending in Garden Grove. That corridor is home to the county’s largest employer, Disneyland, and sees an average 12,800 bus boardings a day, 12 percent of the county’s total.

Officials are projecting a growth in housing and hotel rooms along the corridor, with 4,551 planned housing units (mostly in Anaheim) and 5,378 new hotel rooms in Anaheim and Garden Grove.

With an expected increase in housing density along Harbor Boulevard, officials say there is a opportunity to grow transit use along Harbor. They also want to bolster regional transportation by connecting new projects on Harbor to the OC Streetcar, which is slated to begin construction later this year.

The OC Streetcar route begins at the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, travels through downtown Santa Ana and ends at Harbor Boulevard and Westminster Avenue in Garden Grove.

Bus rapid transit, which often is praised by transportation advocates as having the advantages of light rail without the costly infrastructure, received the highest score for cost effectiveness. Among the top five options, the Harbor Rapid Streetcar costs the most at an estimated $690 million in capital costs while Harbor Bus Rapid Transit costs $230 million.

The Harbor Rapid Streetcar, meanwhile, has the highest estimated weekday boardings at 15,200, compared with 14,700 for the Harbor Long Streetcar and 14,600 for Harbor Bus Rapid Transit.  The Anaheim-Lemon Streetcar would see an estimated 11,300 boardings and the Anaheim-Lemon BRT would see 12,000 boardings, according to the estimates.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, who has consistently opposed streetcar projects citing their relatively high cost compared to bus service, questioned the evaluation metrics used in the report. He pointed to the large difference in scores between the top-ranked streetcar and the lowest ranking option, enhanced bus.

“When you look at travel speeds, enhanced bus goes at 16.4 mph and the streetcar goes at 14.2,” Tait said. “Enhanced bus is much faster.”

Enhanced bus is the option with the fewest features, making it the cheapest to implement. It’s similar to regular bus service except for features like priority at intersections and the option to pay fares before boarding the bus.

“I don’t understand why the bus would rate so low. I think the analysis is flawed,” Tait said.

Tait also questioned why the Harbor study includes analysis of streetcars when most of the corridor runs through the city of Anaheim.

“I can’t imagine a scenario, why we’d waste time and money going forward when you have a major city saying we don’t want a streetcar. There’s going to be a congestion issue,” said Tait. “We want something that will make it better, not worse.”

The Anaheim City Council, at one point, was a strong advocate for a $300 million streetcar project that would have connected the city’s transit hub to its resort district.

When political winds shifted last year, the current council, led by Tait, voted to oppose the development of any kind of streetcar down Harbor Boulevard. OCTA also voted to stop any work on the project.

Johnson said that OCTA staff has not, at this time, singled out any of the twelve options. Instead, they are waiting to hear feedback from Fullerton, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Santa Ana.

Responding to Tait’s comment that the streetcar would increase traffic, Johnson noted the bus alternatives face similar obstacles. Both the rapid streetcar and bus rapid transit alternatives, for example, would require closing a lane to traffic.

“There’s really a one-point difference between bus rapid transit and streetcar,” Johnson said.

OCTA director and county supervisor Shawn Nelson told Tait the Harbor study was in part a response to the controversy surrounding the Anaheim streetcar proposal.

“The reason we’re having this discussion is exactly because we realize local politics can really do harm to some of these local transit projects,” said Nelson. “This is just a study. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Anaheim politics but part of that gets diluted when you have a regional board.”

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who has been a proponent of streetcar projects in the past, suggested Anaheim residents may not share the city council’s opposition to streetcars.

“I think in Santa Ana and Garden Grove and Anaheim and elsewhere…we have to continue to see where the residents are at,” Pulido said.

In an online poll by OCTA, which surveyed 413 people, respondents rated a streetcar 7.07 out of a top score of 10, followed by 6.6 for bus rapid transit and 6.1 for a limited stop bus.

Most respondents -- 64 percent -- said they worked near Harbor Boulevard, while 54 percent said they go dining along the corridor and 38 percent said they go shopping along Harbor.

Other stakeholders interviewed by OCTA said they generally support transit investment along Harbor, but need more information before stating any preferences.

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