Good Choo-Choo, Bad Choo-Choo

Five years ago, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido called the proposed Centerline light-rail system “the wrong solution” for Orange County's transportation problems. Denouncing the $1 billion-plus project as a “monstrosity,” he led a unanimous City Council vote against it.

But in July, just when voters were finally going to get the right to pull the plug on the barely breathing proposal, Pulido stepped in to single-handedly keep the Centerline alive. He convinced the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) board to reject a plan that would have put the issue on the November ballot. “By voting to put it on the ballot, we kill the project,” Pulido told the Los Angeles Times on July 18. “It would be a terrible mistake.”

What changed?

Not the Centerline plan. The 9.3-mile route is still scheduled to barely pass through Irvine and Costa Mesa before cutting through Santa Ana's Bristol Street and Civic Center Plaza like a knife through the city's heart. The 1999 staff reports that predicted horrendous traffic jams and foreshadowed the bulldozing of about 150 homes and businesses are unaltered. Pulido used to cite those reports when he was preaching against the project—and when he was one of two brave OCTA trustees voting against it.

But now Pulido sees the Centerline in a different light—and the shift in his perspective may be a matter of how that light reflects on him.

Data from the 2000 Census showed that Santa Ana residents make up about one-third of the county's public-transportation users. Since plans call for the Centerline's budget to come from Measure M funds and federal government grants, joining the light-rail project shouldn't cost Pulido's city a dime—even though the project would serve Santa Ana more than any other city in Orange County. Being able to tell voters he got them a free mass-transit project would be an achievement Pulido could no doubt trumpet come election time.

Pulido's new role as Centerline supporter has helped transform him into one of the county's most powerful mayors—mostly because it made strong allies of two light-rail heavyweights, Irvine Mayor Larry Agran and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle.

Toting the Centerline played a major role in Pulido's appointment last fall to the Great Park board of directors, where Agran holds significant sway.

Agran and Pringle helped Pulido lobby state Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) to author a bill—currently on the governor's desk—that proposes to expand the OCTA board from 11 members to 17. The Orange County League of Cities deemed the move “controversial” because it would increase the clout of larger cities at the expense of the county government and establish Irvine as a permanent member.

Agran and Pringle were also the tag team most responsible for the League of Cities vote that allowed Pulido to remain on the OCTA board for an additional six years despite bylaws that called for Pulido to be termed out. Agran justified stretching the term limit to The Orange County Registerreporter Jeff Rowe in a June 27 profile on the triad by saying—or maybe “admitting” is the better word—the removal of Pulido would have “damaged our interests.”

What happens to the interests Pulido was vowing to protect five years ago? They're harder to hear these days. There are no calls—from Pulido or anyone else—for street widening to avert the inevitable congestion the Centerline will cause. Or maybe they've been drowned out by the revving of bulldozers that will flatten all those Bristol Street businesses and homes.

Monstrosity, indeed.

First in Poverty, Last on Orange County's Mind

Truthfully, a study released this past Monday deeming Santa Ana the toughest urban area in the country to live in didn't reveal anything surprising. The report—produced by the State University of New York's Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government—took into account various social and economic indicators such as education, number of people per household, and the percentage living below the federal poverty level in bestowing Santa Ana with the dubious honor.

The analysis, however, shocked both the local and national media. “Santa Ana Sees Crushing Hardship,” blared The Orange County Register on Sept. 6, the day of the study's publication. “The Hard Life—Santa Ana Style,” wept a Sept. 5 Los Angeles Times preview of the report. And the Associated Press quoted Rockefeller Institute director Richard P. Nathan as being “surprised to see Santa Ana at the top of the list.”

It's as if no one can accept that urban poverty exists in Orange County. Orange County, after all, is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, the land of the bronzed beauties who populate the Fox television program The O.C., a wonderland that USA Today last year crowned the “new capital of cool.” What's more, how could urban blight—historically a problem of big cities—ever exist in suburbia?

But who do you think shines Orange County's star? The true engine for the Orange County lifestyle isn't our beautiful coastline, Anaheim's tourism industry or the Fortune 500 companies that dot South County; it's the residents of Santa Ana, the country's youngest, most-Latino, most-Spanish-speaking, most-crowded major city. It's the mom who gets up at dawn to take a two-hour bus trip to nanny for a Newport Beach family, a trip that would take maybe 20 minutes by car. It's the dad who shares a one-bedroom apartment with two other families since his $500-per-week gig washing dishes at a posh restaurant can't cover the apartment's rent. It's the teenager who foregoes college so he or she can bicycle to a parking-lot-attendant job to help out mami y papi.

If anything, the Rockefeller Institute report is a reminder of this stark reality. Tara needed its slave quarters; Manhattan its Hells Kitchen. And so Orange County has Santa Ana, whose residents allow the rest of the county to bask in fame and luxury even as these Santa Anans struggle toward their meager slice of the American Dream.

ga*******@oc******.comHear a version of “First in Poverty, Last on Orange County's Mind” on NPR'sDay to Day this Friday.

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