Light Rail Now! - The Track to Better Urban Livability
Home Button Features Button News Button Events Button Facts Button Myths Button About Us Button Contact Us button Links Button Search
OCTA elevated LRT

Related Links

Light Rail Progress can be contacted at:

Light Rail Progress

Orange County, Ca: Light Rail Vote Looms June 3rd (2003)

By Light Rail Progress • May 2003 (Rev. June 2003)

NOTE: The following article was posted before irvine's vote on 3 June 2003. in a very confused and conflicted outcome, irvine voters rejected both the pro-LRT Measure A and the anti-LRT Measure B. That basically puts the CenterLine LRT project in a kind of limbo – legally, the project could proceed in irvine, but politically, that is unlikely, since political officials and OCTA decisionmakers would be ostensibly violating the intent of a majority of voters if they proceeded to implement the project as is. Alternatives are now being studied, and we hope to report on these imminently.

Heading for a vote on 3 June 2003 is another brand-new light rail transit (LRT) starter project – this time, in Orange County, California, just south of Los Angeles. in a special election, voters in the City of irvine will be deciding the future of the CenterLine rail project proposed by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). (Actually, it's a revote, since county voters already approved rail transit in 1990 when they passed Measure M, which authorizes transportation improvement funds for both rail transit and highway improvements.) Two counterposed, pro/con rail measures are competing to amend the irvine General Plan and Municipal Code regarding the CenterLine project.

OCTA's CenterLine Phase I project is an 11.4-mile proposed light rail system which would run from the City of Santa Ana on the north end, through Costa Mesa, to irvine on the south end, with a proposed 0.8 mile eastward extension to Santa Ana College. (See map below.) The alignment is quite unusual for LRT, since it is mostly elevated. it would serve a range of major destinations in the region, including UC irvine, irvine Business Complex, John Wayne Airport, South Coast Plaza/Metro, the Santa Ana Civic Center, the Santa Ana Amtrak/Metrolink Station, and possibly Santa Ana College.

A bargain in transport capacity

CenterLine, about 85% elevated, is projected to cost $1.2 billion (year of expenditure dollars), or about $105 million per mile. Ridership is forecast at 21,800 rider-trips on opening day, increasing to 31,600 by 2025.

While $105 million a mile sounds like a hefty pricetag, nevertheless, for an urban transportation facility, it's a bargain in terms of potential capacity. The system ultimately should have the capacity to move up to 15,000 people per hour per direction. To move that number in private automobiles in a peak hour would require about 9 lanes of freeway per direction, or 18 lanes. At an average urban cost of about $20 million per lane-mile, an equivalent freeway would cost about $360 million per mile. in effect, with CenterLine, Orange County would be getting enormous future transportation capacity at less than one-third the price.

Rail transit has been the target of fierce pro-automobile opposition in the county, producing years of controversy and indecision. An earlier alignment was to go through the residential irvine neighborhoods of Woodbridge, Oak Creek, and Westpark on its way to the irvine Spectrum and irvine Transportation Center, but these areas were removed from the project. Instead, the proposed route now goes south from the irvine Business Complex to serve the University of California at irvine. The CenterLine project is intended to complement Orange County's existing network of freeways, roads, buses and trains by offering residents a new way quickly and efficiently to get around Orange County.

· Measure A – backed by OCTA and regional transit proponents – would support the City of irvine's participation in the CenterLine project, and ratifies the current CenterLine alignment. Any future extensions or modifications would need to be approved by irvine voters.

· Measure B – basically, an anti-transit, pro-automobile effort pushed by a coalition of Road Warriors, NIMBY activists, and assorted other transit opponents – would prohibit the City of irvine from participating in the CenterLine project, or any future rail projects within irvine city boundaries. It would also require any future rail routes to be approved by irvine voters.

Critics claim that Orange County lacks the population density and major activity concentrations needed to support effective rail transit. However, US Census statistics for 2000 indicate that Orange County is California's second most densely populated county. In fact, the cities along the proposed CenterLine route are denser than most American cities which have been operating successful modern light rail lines.

According to OCTA, more than 2.9 million people currently live in Orange County, and that number is projected to swell by an additional 600,000 new residents and 450,000 new jobs by 2020. As noted above, CenterLine would connect the busiest activity centers in the county's most heavily travelled corridor, as well as serving fairly dense residential areas. There are 415,000 residents and 340,000 jobs within two miles of the proposed CenterLine route.

Analyses by OCTA indicate that the CenterLine LRT service would save regional travellers approximately 13.4 million hours of annual travel time, resulting in 253,000 fewer daily vehicle miles traveled. By attracting passengers from automobiles, the LRT system initially would help keep some 8,200 automobiles off Orange County's congested roads and streets, and eventually lead to 14,000 fewer cars contesting for Orange County traffic lanes and parking spaces.

Big Lie campaign by opponents

Orange County has been a battleground in the automobile vs. rail transit struggle for more than a decade, and possibly more. One of the most curious – and bizarre – artifacts of this struggle was a report by an Orange County Grand Jury which invoked California penal codes to require OCTA to "respond" to a Road Warrior-inspired quasi-indictment against light rail, mass transit, and the agency's LRT planning process. (See our story Orange Country "Grand Jury Report" Against Light Rail ... Goes Splat.)

Despite the fierce opposition, rail supporters did win a major victory in 1990 when, as noted above, Orange County voters passed Measure M, setting aside a special transportation improvement tax. However, 75% of this tax goes to support highway development, while only 25% was earmarked to fund a rail transit system for the county.

The CenterLine project has managed to navigate through a series of zigs and zags, and a political firefight which has generally counterposed more liberal and moderate pro-transit political forces against a hodge-podge of pro-highway Road Warriors and Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) activists generally cohering around a far-right anti-transit ideology. As usual, rail opponents – organized in a group called FAIR – have relied on an array of misconceptions, deception, anti-rail Old Wives' Tales, and recycled Road Warrior arguments from the Wendell Cox school of transportation sophistry, to try to sway the Orange County public, and irvine voters in particular, to oppose the project. This has amounted to the same kind of Big Lie campaign familiar in rail referendum campaigns in other cities.

Relief for mobility congestion

One of these well-worn issues, wielded repetitively by various rail opponents, is LRT's impact on traffic congestion. However, reducing roadway traffic congestion is basically a kind of red herring, as our article Denver Data Show Light Rail's Real impact on Mobility Congestion points out:

LRT critics and opponents consistently try to pose "reduction" of roadway traffic as a basic measuring stick for the "success" of LRT - a measure it will inevitably fail to meet. In reality, by raising (unachievable) expectations of significant roadway congestion reduction from LRT and other major transit projects, transit and LRT opponents exploit a common fallacy and misconception: That any single transportation facility, roadway or transit, can ever truly "reduce" congestion. It is almost universally recognized, even among highway planners, and throughout the transportation planning profession, that roadway traffic congestion is a fundamental fact of life - basically, it continues to grow with population expansion and the proliferation of motor vehicles. Acceptance of some degree of congestion is actually incorporated into the basic design of urban roadways.

The de facto persistence of roadway congestion is also addressed in our story Study: Rail Transit May Slow Growth in Traffic Congestion, which observes that

the consensus among most transportation planners, both in this country and abroad, seems to incorporate the recognition that population and vehicular growth imply that some degree of congestion will be inevitable; in other words, traffic congestion is here to stay. Short of a catastrophic event (like World War 2), we'll never see the free-flowing traffic conditions of 5 or 6 decades ago. (Whatever roadway seems "uncongested" rapidly fills up, as both motorists and developers rush to take advantage.) Thus, the best that can be hoped for is somehow to slow the growth of congestion.

However, this article suggests, the presence of rail transit in one or more corridors may at least help attenuate the growth of traffic congestion, citing a study which "indicates that, in large and very large urban areas, urban areas with rail transit in major traffic corridors have a lower rate of congestion growth than do similarly sized urban areas without rail."

And the Denver story, referenced above, argues that what rail and other major transit service improvements can do is relieve, not motor vehicle congestion, but mobility congestion:

It is either an error or a deception to try to assess congestion relief by the measure of whether or not existing congestion simply evaporates. Congestion never just "evaporates". ... What LRT does is to open up, in effect, a new "traffic artery" along which people can move past the existing congestion. Moreover, unlike the capacity-increasing effects of a freeway, the result with LRT is that all those cars are off the road, out of the traffic stream, and out of the competition for scarce parking spaces. Perhaps the realistic goal of major transit improvements like LRT, therefore, is to relieve mobility congestion, and not necessarily traffic congestion.

Furthermore, the impact of an LRT line or system is not so much in terms of areawide congestion, but in terms of relieving mobility congestion in the specific corridor(s) it serves. As the article notes,

bona fide congestion relief provided by LRT and other major transit services cannot be expected to take the form of significant reductions in road traffic. Instead, relief is far more likely to take the form illustrated in Denver: diversion of significant traffic growth into high-quality transit service in specific corridors.

In the specific Denver corridor studied, the data suggested that Denver's LRT at peak hour in the peak direction in the target corridor was carrying between 28% and 33% of the total passenger traffic flow. In other words, without the LRT line in service, approximately 30% of corridor passenger traffic would be added to the roadway congestion – illustrating that LRT can have a significant impact on corridor mobility congestion.

A further additional traffic benefit of LRT, often overlooked, is the impact on parking. As noted above, the initial ridership projected for the CenterLine LRT starter line implies that 8,200 fewer motor vehicles would be requiring and contending for scarce parking spaces in the corridor in the opening year, and, ultimately, 14,000 fewer vehicles. Put another way: the corridor would require as many as 14,000 fewer general-use parking spaces with the CenterLine project, than without it. That also translates into an enormous cost saving for businesses and other activity centers in the Santa Ana-Costa Mesa-irvine corridor.

The prospects for OCTA's CenterLine light rail proposal were given a major boost in late April (2003) when the agency announced that, if approved, the system will arrive two years earlier than previously anticipated. Because 30% of the design process has been completed, OCTA officials announced they're optimistic they would be able to get CenterLine "up and running" by October 2009, rather than by the previously targeted January 2011 date.
[Los Angeles Times April 24, 2003]

Supporters of the project say that's just one more reason, out of dozens, to back the CenterLine project, and they urge irvine voters to

· Vote YES on Measure A

· Vote NO on Measure B.

Material from OCTA and Transit Advocates of Orange County was adapted for this story.

Updated 2003/06/06

More on Orange County Rail Transit


All website material © 2000-2007 Light Rail Now Project (unless otherwise indicated)