Most Orange County transit officials still aren’t interested in financially bailing out the Downtown Santa Ana bridal shops, general stores, and travel agencies whose owners say they’re hanging on by a thread amidst disruptions to business by OC Streetcar construction.
Instead, a majority of Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) board members on Monday voted to keep up their indirect assistance efforts for now, including signage for storefronts, security, and social media promotions for impacted businesses.
But those efforts haven’t helped much so far, said many of the 21 merchants whose sales plummeted under choked-out foot traffic in the area and who spoke out during public comment at Monday’s OCTA board meeting.
“Our customers do not know how to drive to our businesses and believe we are closed. Although you have put many signs, people are still confused and do not want to go through the trouble of arriving at our businesses,” said one person on behalf of a Spanish-speaking family member.
“Because of the construction, you’ve destroyed my hope, our hope, Fourth Street’s hope,” the speaker said, “to survive and to get back to how it used to be.”
Instead, many have called for direct money assistance from the $1 billion agency.
Sales are still plummeting.
A single transaction could be considered a miracle some days.
Such help already came from the City of Santa Ana, though some have said it’s not enough compared to the businesses’ everyday expenses, and it will take time to roll out.
OCTA legal counsel James Donich on Monday said it isn’t possible to give transportation dollars to the suffering businesses under current spending guidelines – namely because he argued it would constitute a gift of public money to private interests under the California Constitution.
And while there were some exceptions – as long as the monetary assistance fulfilled a purpose for the general public, or the public purpose for which OCTA was formed – Donich said those didn’t apply, citing overhead laws and Supreme Court case precedent.
When people at the meeting mentioned a 7-year business interruption grant under LA Metro, under similar circumstances of a public transit project disrupting businesses in the neighboring county, Donich said the Metro’s justification for it “runs counter to my analysis and that of other agencies.”
“When you did your analysis, it looks like you were trying to find a way to not do something,” said OCTA board director, Katrina Foley, who’s also a county supervisor and – along with Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento – one of the most vocal advocates for sending the businesses money from OCTA.
“I would disagree with that, Director Foley,” Donich said.
At the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to seek another opinion on the matter from state Attorney General Rob Bonta.
Along downtown’s historic Fourth Street, known as La Cuatro, people have protested the situation by occupying construction trenches and holding up workers by blocking tractors.
During the last protest, a business owner put a dress inside the construction area while fellow small businesses owners again held signs and demanded some help from transportation authority officials.
The $509 million streetcar project is set to finish in 2024 and will run between Santa Ana and Garden Grove in its entirety, for now.
It’s OCTA’s first mass public transit project.
But OCTA leaders have generally envisioned the upcoming route as the start of a system change – easing reliance on cars and opening the door to a new transit network some hope to eventually extend to other parts of the county, like John Wayne Airport.
Now the agency’s refusal of Fourth Street business owners’ demands has some wondering when cars will come back to the place where tracks had just been laid.
Shawn Makhani, the nearly 32-year owner of Telas Fabrics, called the project a “train to hell” during the meeting.
It’s a battle between the short-term and long-term – the present situation and the future possibilities.
During public comment, Javier Meneses, of Latino American Services on Fourth Street, said the transit project is a welcome investment in Santa Ana, with the potential for being “the pride of the city” when it’s up and running.
“You thought of tomorrow,” said Meneses. “But it’s very clear that you never thought of today.”
Marcela Rodriguez, a travel agency owner, said during public comments that she’s been in business for over 30 years.
“I have been through crisis before. 9/11 broke travel; the internet, people booking their own trips online; and the pandemic. But none of it has been as impactful as the OC Streetcar construction,” Rodriguez said.
The ordeal has also heightened calls by the project’s opponents to pull the plug.
“Let’s just stop … that’s the way we solve this problem,” said board director and county Supervisor Don Wagner, who’s been critical of the streetcar project in general.