Credit the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) with fairness: in an Aug. 23 debate designed to highlight the advantages of the agency's $2 billion CenterLine light-rail project, two of the three speakers who came to praise the system ended up burying it.
Indeed, after two and a half hours of fact spitting at UC Irvine, just one of the six speakers—religious conservative Paul Weyrich—was left arguing that the proposed 28-mile system would reduce the county's apocalyptic traffic problem. The other five—including two rail supporters—agreed the system would do nothing.
The result: anti-rail opponents, one; CenterLine, zero.
Running from downtown Fullerton to the Irvine Transportation Center, the CenterLine is OCTA's highest-profile assault on the county's freeway gridlock. Moving along either street-level or elevated tracks, CenterLine is supposed to carry 35,000 to 50,000 riders per day—roughly nothing compared to the county's own numbers, which estimate that county drivers will log an apocalyptic 10 million car trips per day by 2020.
Immediately declining a battle over facts or studies, former Costa Mesa Mayor Peter Buffa tried a subtler approach. He said ridership data was irrelevant and that the county needs a rail line because, well, because "every major metropolitan area except ours has a rail component," and "we need every weapon at our disposal to move people around."
Rail opponents didn't buy it, and few of the 300 or so attendees seemed impressed. "The OC rail system will not reduce congestion," read a transparency placed before the crowd by UCI economics professor emeritus Charles Lave, establishing the anti-rail mantra for the evening.
Only Weyrich, the Washington, D.C.-based conservative activist and current rail consultant known for his role in founding the Moral Majority, took issue with the no-one-rides-light-rail argument. His main point was that rail investment has increased steadily throughout the country during the past decade because that's what middle-class suburban voters—many of them Republicans—want.
That may be true, but the data also shows that auto use has increased as though light rail didn't even exist. "There wasn't even a temporary reduction in traffic over the Mississippi Bridge" after Saint Louis' rail system went in 10 years ago, said transportation consultant and anti-rail panelist Wendell Cox. Cox also attacked Portland's light-rail system, OCTA's favorite example, saying that city has seen a 20 percent increase in traffic congestion since the rail line became operational, compared to just 15 percent for the nation over the same period.
In other words, auto traffic and rail use aren't related. According to panelist Lave, Portland transit figures show 2,800 people used that city's rail line during rush hour. But those same figures show 2,100 of those people were former bus riders, indicating virtually no improvement in traffic congestion.
"I thought the debate was outstanding," said Wayne King, founding member of Drivers for Highway Safety and a longtime rail opponent. "But I think Mr. Weyrich should stick to religious issues."