Orange County's 9.3-mile light-rail system is dead after a decade of planning and $63 million in studies.
Friday, a subcommittee of the Orange County Transportation Authority voted 7-0 to recommend that the project be abandoned and other options considered. The full OCTA board is scheduled to vote on CenterLine's fate Feb. 14. The board is expected to adopt the subcommittee's recommendation and pursue other mass-transit projects, according to interviews with a dozen local transportation officials. The agency, charged with managing the $1 billion Center Line proposal, lacks support from the county's congressional delegation to seek $483 million in federal funding. The railway was to have stretched from downtown Santa Ana to John Wayne Airport.
"I believe CenterLine is on its last legs, or last wheels, and will not be built," said Supervisor Bill Campbell, who also sits on the OCTA board.
Even Miguel Pulido, Santa Ana's mayor and one of Center Line's most ardent supporters, acknowledged Friday that the light-rail system is at the very least on hold for now. He wants the agency to widen Bristol Street so a sophisticated bus line can zoom down the middle.
"I see it as a transition," Pulido said, adding that officials could "keep our options open and convert it (to light rail) later."
Nick Meola, who has owned a condominium on Bristol since 1989, was glad to learn that CenterLine was dead.
"That's good to hear," said Meola, 50. "As far as I'm concerned, it was only going to make a lot of noise. Nobody could tell me if it would add or detract from the property values."
Alternatives to CenterLine include the rapid bus line, expanded Metrolink service and other types of rapid transit.
Supervisor James Silva, who is on the OCTA board and once supported CenterLine, said he had become leery of the high cost of studying the rail line while it is apparent funding support "from the federal government is not there."
"I will not support CenterLine," Silva said.
If CenterLine indeed crumbles, the agency will find itself with $340 million to spend on other projects.
Art Leahy, OCTA chief executive officer, said the project is withering because of funding.
"It's a business problem," he said. "It's about what can we realistically expect to accomplish."
The shrinking project
Ten years ago, CenterLine was envisioned as a 28-mile corridor, stretching from Fullerton to Irvine. But the project was scaled back as local opposition developed along the route. In June 2003, Irvine voters rejected it. The current plan shaved nearly 20 miles off the original route and called for stops in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. Construction would have affected up to 400 homes and businesses because Bristol would have needed to be widened to accommodate the train.
Supervisor Chris Norby, who also sits on the OCTA board, has long been skeptical of CenterLine. "If we are going to build rail, we need to use existing right of ways," Norby said. "CenterLine was always a concept looking for a place to put it. It's like trying to fit into a size 6 shoe when you are a size 10."
Norby believes there is a place for rail in Orange County, but it has to be fast and connect with other systems. As planned, CenterLine would have traveled 17 mph and run mostly at street level.
Five of the six congressional representatives from O.C. haven't been willing to seek federal funds for CenterLine because the delegation believes the county is divided in its backing of the project.
Said Christopher Cox, R-Newport Beach: "The broad political support isn't there. It's a very confused message. What we need is clear direction from the people of Orange County that this is what they want us to do in Congress with their limited political capital over the next decade."
Cox has called for a countywide vote on the project, but OCTA had resisted that, fearing defeat.
The $9 million in federal money CenterLine has received up to now has been used for preliminary engineering and planning. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, the delegation's only Democrat and a CenterLine supporter, doesn't believe Cox should be holding up the funding, particularly since the majority of its benefit would go to her constituents in central O.C.
"We're one of the highest congested areas in the nation," Sanchez said. "We have no fixed rail. We don't have something people can use to travel around, so they have to use their cars."
Sanchez points to Measure M, a half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 1990, as proof the county wants Center Line: "We have set aside money for the last 20 years to build a fixed- rail project."
Critics, however, say that if Center Line is a failure it could hurt OCTA's efforts to extend the sales tax, which will expire in 2011.
The answer, Sanchez said, might lie in OCTA's efforts.
"Maybe OCTA needs to sit back and say, 'How do we educate the public so the public understands the importance of a fixed-rail project,' " she said.