Oh, how Anaheim tried to wow the rest of Southern California on Dec. 13, as it showcased its new Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC) to the public. You know the spot: that gleaming building off the 57 freeway sandwiched between the Honda Center and Angels Stadium that resembles an abalone shell during the day and a neon half-armadillo at night. It has already joined the Crystal Cathedral and Newport Coast's arches as ostentatious metaphors for the Orange County way–and it's the greatest boondoggle to hit us since the Great Park.
But the fun! The grand debut featured food trucks, sponsor booths, fire trucks and dignitaries. Guides took the curious around the three-story structure as if it were the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; flat-screen televisions looped videos explaining all of the architectural doodads. A massive model-scale train set choo-chooed in the lobby, within eyesight of the ticket booths for the Amtrak, Metrolink and Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) buses that will now use ARTIC as one of their key bases. People rushed up the steps, lingering on the crossway that connected the main area to the tracks to catch beautiful views of the Santa Ana River and the Anaheim skyline.
A rock & roll band started the festivities with "California Sun," jamming through the paean to the Golden State as volunteers ran around to make sure everything was fine. And almost everything was. Sure, an escalator didn't work. None of the restaurants that Anaheim is counting on to make ARTIC a cultural destination were open–not for the next three months, at the earliest. Offices had blinds on the floor; tools were stuffed inside the elevators that weren't working. But, hey, there was a Bitcoin ATM! And that shell! And in a corner, kids could watch The Polar Express!
The only thing missing? Actual commuters–the ostensible reason for this $188 million dream funded by federal, state and Measure M funds. The ticket booths for rail and bus travel were so slow tellers either gathered to gossip or stretched their arms behind their heads. Waiting for the Pacific Surfliner to take him to Union Station in Los Angeles, 42-year-old Donald Stone said ARTIC "was really impressive, really nice.
"But look around," Stone said, pointing to the few commuters around him. "No one's here. Really big deal for very few people."
Critics have trashed the station's rosy projections–10,000 passengers per day upon opening–as unrealistic. They've also noted that Orange County is already well-served by other, smaller stations, including a charming one in Anaheim just 1,000 feet away from ARTIC that shut down last week, made redundant by its bigger sister. But as with 19th-century boosters willing to have their town invaded by robber barons if that meant a railroad went through it, Anaheim doesn't care about reality. They're hitching ARTIC to two other projects already proving headaches to taxpayers that might never get built: California's high-speed railroad and a streetcar that would connect the station to the city's resort area.
And to make all of this happen, Anaheim has had to follow the dark lord of Orange County politics: former mayor Curt Pringle, whose long reach has guided ARTIC almost from the start.
Although Anaheim has tried to make itself a transportation hub long before Pringle assumed de jure power of the city in 2002, it was he who made it happen. The longtime lobbyist pushed for the project while simultaneously heading the city, representing it on the OCTA board of trustees and serving as chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA)–a hat trick decried by good-government watchers but shrugged off by the state attorney general's office, which found
nothing wrong he couldn't hold all the offices at the same time but didn't penalize him for doing it. The high-speed rail concept, of course, is a pork project of epic proportions rammed down California's throat (or up its tochis, conversely) by a bizarre coalition of Democrats (including Tom Umberg, who beat Pringle for a state assembly seat way back in 1990 and replaced his former enemy as CHSRA chairman) and ostensible small-government conservatives.
By pushing for ARTIC, both while mayor and not, Pringle not only gave a destination high-speed rail advocates could cite as reason to continue, but he also could use the coming rail to justify ARTIC's reason to be built–the cart and the horse pulling each other at the same time. Or, better yet, a callback to the Octopus, the mythical manifestation of California's Big Four railroad tycoons that ruled California during the mid-1800s.
Pringle left all three positions once he was termed out. But he retains his de facto leadership of Anaheim transit with a lucrative consulting contract for the Anaheim Transportation Network (ATN), an agency composed of business interests tasked with providing public transit for the city's resort area and on whose board sits a client of Pringle & Associates, the dark lord's lobbying firm. They gifted him with $157,084 in 2012, according to ATN's 2012 990 filing, for "government relations"; a $92,900 contract in 2013 to consult on an OCTA grant; and a three-year contract that started that same year to provide "policy development, government advocacy efforts, and communications and media relations."
Former and current ATN trustees have pushed for ARTIC for years, and it's they who have also championed a streetcar, officially called Anaheim Rapid Connect (ARC). The current path would snake from ARTIC through the planned Platinum Triangle project (another Pringle darling) through the ever-empty Anaheim GardenWalk (praised by Pringle during his mayoral years), the front of the Disneyland Resort (Pringle pals) and to the Anaheim Convention Center.
The Anaheim City Council approved ARC in 2012; ground is expected to break on it in 2017. And if that happens, the streetcar becomes another tool to justify ARTIC. The argument goes that ARTIC's existence will draw more tourists to Anaheim, and that justifies a streetcar–a solution in search of a problem that never existed. And while proponents insist everyone in the city will benefit, it's apparent who the true beneficiary will be: Disneyland. Indeed, a Disneyland cast member was dressed as a train conductor during ARTIC's opening, handing out Mickey Mouse ears-shaped snacks to the masses–a ghost from Christmas future or something.
But no one cared about this tangled web on opening day, even if reality is already rearing its inconvenient head. ARTIC has yet to fill up with tenants, and Anaheim hasn't secured naming rights–essential to not incurring an immediate deficit, a hole that taxpayers would have to fill. But then again, creating revenue for city coffers was never the priority for ARTIC fans, and a quote by just-voted-out councilwoman–and Pringle ally–Gail Eastman in the Orange County Register last month is telling.
"I'm expecting our staff to come up with a way to pay the bill," Eastman told reporter Art Marroquin. "Our first priority was getting the building done and getting the concession leases signed."
No, the first priority was to make Pringle happy. And he definitely is.