Some local officials envisioned the 4-mile OC Streetcar as a sample of a larger, countywide public rail network – but the construction’s impact on downtown Santa Ana merchants made some there see it instead as a “Train to Hell.”

And they wanted off. 

Over the course of this year, small business owners protested in the streetcar project’s dirt construction trenches, compelled public officials to hold forums there, and flooded the public comments portions of government meetings.

Now, they’re getting some government assistance cash for all the lost business.

Orange County Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a $1.2 million economic subsidy program for downtown small business owners hurt financially by the project, which tore up streets across Santa Ana and choked out the vehicle and pedestrian traffic that merchants on Fourth Street, or Calle Cuatro, relied on for their livelihoods. 

The assistance funds were proposed – and will be managed by – Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, whose supervisorial district’s allocation of federal pandemic relief money will be used for the aid program.

That could mean up to $5,000, $10,000, and $20,000 grants to individual businesses, depending on their size and employee workforce, Foley said.

Nearly 30 people signed up to address supervisors in a public comment over the issue.

At one point, the County of Orange’s Spanish-language interpreter stopped and hesitated. 

Downtown business owner Vicki Cerpas was in the middle of telling county Supervisors about how streetcar construction had flattened her sales at Creaciones Alejandra bridal shop – a 90% drop in revenue that’s supposed to sustain her family, she said.

But the translator continued to struggle on something Cerpas said about how long she’d been in business, until the bridal shop owner herself spoke English into the microphone: 

“26 years.”

Merchants said they had seen it all, over the course of several decades operating their shops around Fourth Street.

And they’re among the few who’ve managed to last, amidst concerns the area’s Latino cultural footprint is fading.

There was 9/11 and its impact on travel agencies. The Great Recession of the late aughts. 

Then there was the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the streetcar “has been worse than the pandemic,” said one speaker named Ginette Sanchez during public comment. “During the pandemic, there were grants, help, to survive this. With the streetcar, we are helpless.”

Foley, before the vote, called it “truly devastating what’s happening on Fourth Street.”

She was one of the earliest advocates for downtown merchants, showing up at the scene in person at their first protest inside the streetcar’s dirt construction trench in February. 

[Read: Downtown Santa Ana Small Business Owners Block OC Streetcar Construction Over Lost Profits]

Since then, Foley’s called on county officials to step in with cash and – as a board member at the agency steering the project, known as the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) – was vocally irate at her panel colleagues’ March decision not to allocate any money

At the time, OCTA legal counsel James Donich said it wasn’t possible to give transportation dollars to the businesses under current spending guidelines – namely because he argued it would constitute a gift of public money to private interests under the California Constitution. 

When people at the meeting mentioned a 7-year business interruption grant under LA Metro, under similar circumstances, Donich said the Metro’s justification for it “runs counter to my analysis and that of other agencies.”

The board, consisting of elected officials across the county, opted to do nothing beyond the signage, security and social media promotion efforts OCTA staff undertook in response to the outcry – efforts local merchants said weren’t helping them stay afloat. 

After each of the five county supervisors got about $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to spend with board approval, and “since OCTA will not act,” Foley said the $1.5 million is “a perfect initiative to support local businesses. 

The idea got more questions than support when it first came up at supervisors’ prior, April 26 meeting. Foley was out sick and absent. Supervisor Don Wagner, then, seemed to question the applicability of the federal pandemic relief money for “a small swath of businesses affected not by covid but by OCTA.” Though the board continued the issue to May 10. 

On Tuesday, Wagner took time to rail against the public rail project while also questioning the total, $1.2 million assistance amount Foley’s office came to propose.

Foley said the amount will be distributed on “a sliding scale” of “$5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 grants,” and added it “compliments” the $1.5 million in total assistance that Santa Ana City Council members committed in March

The city received 140 applications for that money since the council’s decision; approved 129 of them; and “allocated” more than $983,000 of it. So far, the city has paid more than $617,000 in total grants disbursed.

“There’s 5 million in this fund available out of (Foley’s district),” Wagner said at the meeting. “I don’t know why only $1.2 million of the $5 million is available.” 

His remark prompted several people in the crowd to shout, “Give more.” 

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