Lite Rail

If light rail in Orange County gets any shorter, they'll have to rent it out for birthdays. Once conceived of as an 87-mile Urban Rail Master Plan, the county's CenterLine has been sliced and diced from 28 miles to 11.4. Last month, Irvine voters delivered the latest cut, killing OCTA's plan to run light rail through their city.

Intelligent minds might have considered that the end of the line. But Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) board members have not yet acknowledged the toy-store foolishness of a diminutive 8-mile line connecting just two cities, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. Instead, at a packed meeting Monday, board members voted to press ahead with the incredibly shrinking CenterLine—and then ran into yet another obstacle.

The obstacle was Paul Freeman, or rather the monolith Freeman represents: C.J. Segerstrom & Sons. Locals know Segerstrom as the developer giant that owns almost everything that Disney and the Irvine Co. do not, including South Coast Plaza. Before the OCTA board had even voted to push forward with the newly truncated CenterLine, Freeman stepped to the lectern to announce that his bosses at Segerstrom have serious reservations about light rail and have therefore withdrawn support.

South Coast Plaza and its nearby Avenue of the Arts were always the center of the CenterLine, the midpoint between downtown Santa Ana and points south. But Freeman said his company had concluded that the streets around South Coast Plaza are too narrow to accommodate a track at ground level; that an elevated track would block sunlight in nearby buildings; and that any track would look ugly, especially when seen next to the expanding Performing Arts Center, many millions for which have come from the bank accounts of the Segerstrom family.

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Then, sounding more civic-minded, Freeman said the light-rail venture is "premature," that recent studies by his firm reveal "price forecasts are rising as ridership [projections] decline."

If trains had balls, it appeared just then that Freeman had kicked them.

Robert's Rules of Order saved the board from both speechlessness and freak-out. Board chair (and Cypress mayor pro tem) Tim Keenan stepped in to ask Freeman to hang around till the end of the meeting when the board might have a few questions. They did, questions that revealed the board's sense of betrayal. Would Segerstrom be willing to sell land for the project? Freeman didn't think so—not "voluntarily," anyhow. One board member suggested routing the train down Sunflower instead of Anton, but that alternative would bypass South Coast Plaza and the Avenue of the Arts, two attractions once deemed essential to the project's success. When Freeman held out the hope of an underground system, board members angrily cut him off, saying that proposal would significantly jack up the costs of CenterLine, already estimated conservatively at $1 billion.

Whatever. By then, leaping over the reality of the Segerstrom bombshell, the board had already voted 9-2 to proceed with funding a rail system shorter than Tim Keenan's belt.

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