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Orange County: (Shorter) CenterLine LRT Still on Track

By Light Rail Progress • July 2003

Like a phoenix rising from its ashes, Orange County, California's beleaguered CenterLine light rail transit (LRT) project got a new resurgence of life on 21 July 2003. After hearing testimony from 75 elected officials, business leaders, and community members during a five-hour meeting, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) Board of Directors voted 9-2 to support a shortened CenterLine light-rail route between the Depot at Santa Ana and John Wayne Airport (see map below). This keeps alive the dream of LRT and a major tool in the efforts to craft a real solution to future mobility congestion in Orange County.

The 8.5-mile initial operating segment will provide service to John Wayne Airport, the South Coast Plaza shopping center and Orange County Performing Arts Center, Mater Dei High School, the Santa Ana Civic Center, the County Government Center and Courthouse, the Santa Ana Artists Village, and the Depot at Santa Ana, where it will connect with Amtrak and Metrolink commuter trains as well as several OCTA bus routes. While Road Warriors and pro-automobile NIMBY activists have intensified their efforts to kill the project, clearly there is also strong support in the county to keep the dream of an attractive public transport alternative alive.

CenterLine map

"OCTA's decision to proceed with the CenterLine project represents a major milestone for Orange County" said OCTA Chairman Tim Keenan. "CenterLine is a crucial link in a balanced transportation system that will serve Orange County residents for years to come."

The Board considered a variety of alternatives to CenterLine during the meeting, including a bus rapid transit system, LRT lines to western and northern Orange County, increased Metrolink service, and shifting money to various highway and road projects. Of the 75 speakers who attended the meeting, nearly two-thirds voiced support for the CenterLine route between Santa Ana and John Wayne Airport.

The revised CenterLine route is projected to cost between $900 million and $1 billion to build, and is forecast to carry 15,000 to 20,000 riders per day is its first year of operation. it is expected to open in 2008.

The following article from the Los Angeles Times provides background about the CenterLine project and more details of the recent OCTA decision.

Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, 22 July 2003

CenterLine still on track after 9-2 vote

OCTA officials shorten billion-dollar light-rail system that will connect Costa Mesa to John Wayne Airport and Santa Ana to 8.5 miles.

Lolita Harper
Daily Pilot

COSTA MESA – A packed conference room at the Orange County Transportation Authority headquarters Monday morning proved that while the length of the proposed CenterLine route continues to shrink, general interest in the project has not.

The board of directors voted 9 to 2 to proceed with a revised light- rail route from the transportation depot in Santa Ana, through Costa Mesa's South Coast Metro area to John Wayne Airport. The decision came after a five-hour meeting in Orange, where more than 60 people spoke on both sides of the issue.

"To not continue is short-sighted and affects the long-term viability of transportation in Orange County," Costa Mesa Councilwoman Libby Cowan said. "We can't just continue to widen freeways, other things have to happen."

The route will be shortened to 8.5 miles and drops the overall price tag to less than $1 billion, board chairman Tim Keenan said.

The CenterLine project, once envisioned as a 28-mile alternative to the overcrowded streets and freeways of Orange County, has been revised and shortened and shortened some more in the past decade. The previous plan, which failed to garner the support of irvine voters in June, called for an 11.4-mile light-rail system connecting Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and irvine. irvine's portion would have included a route from UC irvine through the irvine Business Complex to John Wayne Airport. All three cities backed the proposed line, but irvine's support hinged on a vote of its residents.

Those voters rejected the CenterLine route through their city on June 3, prompting the transportation authority's board to reexamine the entire project. Monday, officials considered abandoning the CenterLine project but approved the shortened route instead.

Keenan said the decision puts all board members "on the same page" and allows the transportation authority to really [home] in on the specified 8.5-mile route and consider an expansion to Santa Ana College, which was cut out because of a lack of funding. Monday's decision will also help authorities meet tight federal deadlines.

"Well yes, it's a smaller route, but once you have the initial phase, the next step in the expansion already has cities lining up to be a part," Cowan said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.

Irvine's politics are not the only ones to affect light-rail progress. Costa Mesa made its own waves in the CenterLine discussion months ago when it pushed heavily for a portion of the railway to go underground. The idea was costly and unpopular, but city officials stood by what they believed to be best for South Coast Metro businesses.

Underground. Above ground. Centerline proponents are just working on getting an acceptable plan off the ground now.

"It just needs to get started," Cowan said. "I think once it is built, people will find a way to utilize it."

Voters in 1990 approved Measure M, which included a list of projects to be completed with the one-half cent sales tax increase. The measure, which includes CenterLine, is very specific as to which projects should be funded and very detailed in the breakdown, according to a staff report. Officials have committed to each project and added the widening of the Garden Grove Freeway to the list. No projects have been abandoned, according to a staff report.

Lolita Harper writes columns Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and covers culture and the arts. She may be reached at (949) 574-4275 or by e-mail at

This report included material adapted from an OCTA news release.

Updated 2003/07/31

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