Light rail was supposed to transform Orange County–undo knotted freeway congestion, smoothly urbanize suburbia. But the revolution will not be realized. During 12 years of intense politicking, the county's light-rail plan decelerated from the utopian 87-mile Urban Rail Master Plan proposed in 1991 to a shorter 29-mile line between Fullerton and Irvine. The final Center Line proposal, a modest 11.4-mile track snaking from UC Irvine to downtown Santa Ana, hit the wall June 3 when classic suburban anxieties–about trains, the underclass and big-cities–moved Irvine voters to kill their city's participation in a system only slightly more ambitious than Disneyland's Monorail.
But amid the smoking rubble of Irvine's failed Measure A, opponents and supporters of light rail are uniting around a new idea: the humble bus.
Okay, not the kinds of buses waddling along Bristol and State College, but Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) buses that are a hybrid–part wheeled vehicle, part Italian modernist design–running along specially designated lanes and guided by computers to ensure strict scheduling.
"There's never been an apples-to-apples comparison of the two [systems] in Orange County," says John Kleinpeter, director of Fund Alternatives Instead of Rail Transit and leader of the underfunded but successful effort to stop light rail in Irvine. "The whole OCTA [Orange County Transportation Authority] process has been biased toward light rail from the beginning. If the goal is to expand the transit system, BRT will provide the most bang for the buck."
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"If there's a fixed lane with pre-emptive signaling, I'd be all for BRT," says his former opponent Sarah Catz, once the chairwoman of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority and a member of OCTA's board, and an architect of Irvine's pro-Center Line ballot initiative.
Recent studies by the federal Government Accounting Office and Washington D.C.-based Breakthrough Technologies Institute suggest BRT outperforms light rail not only in construction time and cost but also in terms of emissions. And because the buses run on roads, not rails, traffic engineers can instantly reroute them to fit changes as minute as holidays and daily commute patterns and as vast as population shifts.
The big question now: Is anybody in county government listening? Six days after Irvine voters rejected a light-rail line through their city, the OCTA board voted to spend $9.6 million for "preliminary engineering on the Center Line light-rail project." In the same meeting, board members delayed funding for BRT routes along Harbor Boulevard and Westminster Avenue to a future budget cycle.
The future of the CenterLine project and BRT is open for discussion on July 21 at the next OCTA board meeting. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. July 21 in Room 154 of the OCTA administrative offices, 600 S. Main St., Orange.