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By Charles Lam
Photo by Jeanne RiceWhen a company needs to win communitysupport for a controversial, multi-million-dollar project, it enlists a golden-tongued diplomat to win the hearts and minds of skeptics. So when producers of the public-affairs show Air Talk on KPCC-FM 89.3 invited officials with the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to defend their Centerline light-rail plan, they expected an expert. Someone like OCTA CEO Art Leahy or spokesman Ted Nguyen, two well-versed men who have spent the better part of four years pitching their shrinking mass-transit dream. Someone who knows what the hell they're spinning.
Instead, the OCTA sent Beth Krom, the Irvine mayor-elect and longtime Centerline supporter. But as a speaker, she's the equivalent of nails across a chalkboard. Hers is an oratorical style rife with logical fallacies, adenoidal whines and inaccurate statistics.
The Krom-Centerline Air Talk fiasco aired on Dec. 2 but was originally recorded before an audience of about 60 people in the professorial confines of UC Irvine's University Club on Nov. 30. Program host Larry Mantle asked pointed questions to Krom and Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby, a Centerline opponent, for about 40 minutes. Questions from a stridently anti-Centerline audience took up the last third of the show.
Norby kept calm throughout, frequently referencing figures and studies to justify his opposition. He stated that Orange County did need a mass-transit project, but didn't think that the current Centerline proposal—which would run 9.3-miles through bits of Irvine and Costa Mesa before slicing through Santa Ana's Bristol Street and Civic Center Plaza—would suffice. The Centerline, Norby charged, would "detract from [other transportation systems] and create a 19th century trolley which isn't going to solve our 21st century transit problems. . . . I think we need to think bigger."
More important for Norby was the issue of funding. "The money isn't there," Norby said. He noted that Orange County's entire congressional delegation opposes the Centerline, and Norby maintained their support is crucial to obtaining the half-billion federal dollars the OCTA needs to fund the project.
"We know what the deficits are like in Washington. . . . Eventually, hopefully, for all our sakes the budget hawks are going to start controlling spending in Washington," Norby said. "And when that happens, projects like this are going to be even more in jeopardy. The federal money isn't there."
Krom dismissed the Centerline's money problems. "You know, Chris and I really come to this whole conversation, I think, from different perspectives," she said early in the conversation. "I understand the challenges on the economic side, the frustrations about not being able to wave a magic wand and make this system appear."
She nevertheless proclaimed that the Centerline would be built—damn the deficits. When Mantle asked if non-support from OC's members of Congress would make the Centerline feasible, she responded that the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) has recommended it for funding "whether our delegation likes the idea or not"—a strange assertion, given that the FTA recently rejected the OCTA's request for a crucial $40 million grant that would kick-start construction next year.
Krom's Centerline-spinning was embarrassing. She claimed Centerline's "initial segment" would "service over 100 million people who work in those areas on a daily basis," a laughable boast considering California's population is only 35 million. When she claimed that ridership levels for Los Angeles' bereft Metro Gold Line "exceeded projections," Mantle fired back, "Actually, it hasn't hit the projections." And when a UCI transportation professor questioned Krom's assertion that rapid transit buses wouldn't be as efficient as light rail, Krom engaged in ivory-tower-bashing.
"In the academic world, you have the luxury of dealing in a theoretical environment in which it can all come together in one's mind," Krom stammered. "But I think we're in the midst of a policy discussion on how to create something, and I haven't seen anything that suggests to me that a high-speed bus system [would succeed]. . . . I'm not averse to it, but the conversation we've been having on light rail is a 15-year conversation, and if we now begin a conversation on an alternative method of transportation, we just have to understand that we will be beginning a very long-term conversation."
"It's like being in a bad 15-year relationship," Norby quipped back to the laughs of the approving audience. "You've been going out with this guy for 15 years, you know he's not a suitable partner, you're getting tired of him but you think, 'Geez, I might as well marry the guy 'cause if I don't, it's going to take another 15 years for me to get in the same position with somebody else.' But that's not a reason to go forward with the relationship—or with this project."