Fear Factor

Official Centerline EIR PhotosThere are very good reasons to oppose the CenterLine light-rail project. Just eight miles long, it's only slightly longer than your average thrill ride, and—at $1 billion—about 10 times as expensive. Studies show it probably won't seduce people out of their cars, or decrease congestion or pollution.

But that's apparently not enough for the anti-rail group Fund Alternatives Instead of Rail (FAIR). Tearing the Willie Horton page from the smear-campaign playbook, FAIR now warns that CenterLine might trigger a crime wave. A headline on the group's website suggests light rail would bring to Orange County the four horsemen of the suburban apocalypse: "Home Values Down/Noise, Congestion, and Crime UP."

The site offers links to just two sources to support its fear factor. One, a 2003 Cal State Fullerton study of property values near light rail, mentions crime just three times in its 50 pages. The only line that appears remotely relevant—"there are possible negative effects for properties adjacent to the line itself and properties 'too close' (i.e. less than 300 meters) to a station that could suffer the negative nuisance effects of noise, congestion, and increased crime"—appears in bold on the FAIR site. But "possible" and "could" are pretty tepid, and the study offers no evidence to support the obvious speculation.

The other link is to a 1999 article in Austin Review—a conservative publication managed by University of Texas students and funded by a free-enterprise booster group—that emphasizes the "dark side" of light rail by describing how a "criminal class" will "regard [the light rail system] as a hunting ground." The author vaguely refers to "FBI statistics," but doesn't tell us what they are, and cites numbers from the Santa Clara County Transit District, circa 1998, that show you're about 60 percent more likely to get hassled on a bus than on a train (23 vs. 14 assaults, respectively).

CenterLine's friends—and many foes—don't take the crime argument seriously. "I don't think crime is a big problem," said Wayne King, a leading figure for Drivers for Highway Safety and a staunch light-rail opponent. Roy Shahbazian, a regular transit user and member of the Rail Advocates of Orange County, agreed. "Nobody's going to try to do a robbery on a light-rail line," he said. "This issue always comes up [in transit discussions]. People play on the fears of affluent neighborhoods in the area." Sarah Catz, a rail supporter and one-time member of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) board, said, "Those accusations sound so silly and ridiculous. They are obviously just scare tactics."

But John Kleinpeter, FAIR's founder and director, swears they're not. "There's no personal fear [of something crime-related]," he said. "I don't want to be made out as someone who is afraid of the [light rail] system because of crime. I don't want it to be written that I'm afraid someone from Santa Ana is going to rob me. I've never said people riding trains are bad. Never once have I said that. What you can gain from the [FAIR] website is what's been written about light rail in other cities. Just like there's impact from noise and congestion, there's also impact from crime."

But Bureau of Transportation Statistics studies from 1995 to 2000—compiled from U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration and National Transit Database figures—show violent crime is lower on light rail than on other modes of transportation.

Just in case, OCTA is willing to take extra precautions. "Customer safety is obviously a priority," said Ted Nguyen, OCTA spokesman. "Once platforms and stations are constructed, there'll be an overall plan set up to address safety issues. Transit police, contracted through the sheriff's office, will be an integral part of that."


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