Photo courtesy OCTAWhen Arthur Leahy leftMinnesota in January 2001 to become CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), agency workers expected a messiah, a man who would shepherd the county through the multibillion-dollar CenterLine project. After all, Leahy had successfully pushed a similar light-rail system in Minneapolis and St. Paul as head of the transportation department for the Twin Cities. And before even assuming leadership of the OCTA, Leahy vowed to do the same for his new municipality.

“One of my top objectives is to do all I can to bring the [CenterLine] project to reality,” Leahy told The Orange County Register shortly before arriving in the county. “The CenterLine is an important tool for maintaining mobility in Orange County in the future.”

But four years into Leahy's tenure, he's done worse than nothing—he's allowed the CenterLine to shrink into something slightly lengthier than the tracks that serve the kiddie train at Irvine Regional Park.

Originally conceived as an ambitious 87-mile answer to Orange County's horrendous congestion question, the OCTA had already reduced the CenterLine to a 29-mile route by the time Leahy came aboard. Under Leahy, CenterLine has shrunk even more: if built, its planned 9.3-mile length would barely pass through Irvine and Costa Mesa before slicing through Santa Ana's Bristol Street and Civic Center Plaza. And even this scenario isn't certain.

Although Leahy spent about $600,000 in lobbying fees to win promises from the federal government of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants needed for the CenterLine, his agency still hasn't received the cash.

Job performance like this anywhere else would earn a CEO a sore bum courtesy of the door that smacked him on the way out. But Leahy's bosses on the OCTA Board of Trustees—who met on Nov. 8—extended his contract an additional year, allowing him to determine Orange County's transportation future through 2008. Trustees also okayed a raise that bumped up the CEO's salary to $200,000 per year—a nice progression from Leahy's initial $155,000 salary. And as a token of appreciation, OCTA chairman Gregory Winterbottom tacked on a $6,000 bonus for Leahy's “outstanding performance during the past year.”

Winterbottom cites no examples of excellence, but here are some accomplishments, both CenterLine-related and not, for the Leahy-led OCTA during 2004:

•Lowballed the bus-driver's union during contract talks, leading to a looming strike that could cripple public transportation for weeks during the holiday season.

•Engineered the first increase in bus fares since 1991, a move that adversely impacts the OCTA's primary ridership: immigrants, seniors and students.

•Lowered the expected ridership of the CenterLine to 22,600 per day by 2025, a number so low it puts the project at risk of missing out on government funding.

•Failed to obtain a $200 million federal grant for a proposed Bristol Street widening essential to the CenterLine.

•Did nothing when Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido—a staunch CenterLine supporter—was allowed to remain an OCTA trustee for an additional six years despite bylaws calling for his removal.

•Also remained quiet as Pulido and other big-city mayors successfully lobbied the California Legislature to expand the OCTA board from 11 members to 17, a move the Orange County League of Cities deemed “controversial” since it gives bigger cities more power. There was also no peep from Leahy when the board rejected a plan that sought to place the CenterLine issue on the November ballot, giving the voters a chance to decide the project's fate.

•Continued to let the freeways . . . ah, you drive them. . . .


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