the Little Train Project That Couldn’t

When President George W. Bush approved a $286 billion transportation bill on Aug. 10, he funded more than 6,000 projects—and signed the death certificate for Placentia’s controversial OnTrac railroad plan.

City officials had spent years lobbying Congress to fund OnTrac, a mammoth $460 million project to lower the train lines that bisect Placentia. They said the ditch digging would revitalize the tiny North County community’s historic downtown. Instead, OnTrac almost killed Placentia. Angry residents of the neighborhood worried that the project would drive them out of their homes. In the end, OnTrac saddled the city with millions of dollars in debt.

Placentia asked for $225 million from Bush’s transportation package, but Congress allocated only $38 million—enough to cover the city’s $25 million deficit, pay off some loans, complete the purchase of a former Office Depot and little else.

But Placentia Mayor Scott Brady isn’t worried. Openly acknowledging that his real estate business would benefit from OnTrac, Brady insists the train will still leave the station, producing an influx of new downtown businesses, housing and restaurants.

Few Placentians share his optimism. Councilwoman Constance Underhill told the Los Angeles Timeson Aug. 9 the transportation bill was the end of OnTrac.

It should never have come to this. The Bush administration wants to improve the nation’s railways, and the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe tracks that bisect Placentia are one of the busiest, connecting the rail yards of Los Angeles to the rest of the continental United States. But for two years, Placentia’s administrators have tried to leverage an essential federal transportation plan into a pork-laden redevelopment scheme. They infuriated citizens, broke the law and hired incompetents who tarnished OnTrac’s always shaky reputation.

Here are four reasons OnTrac died:

.Official incompetence: The OnTrac board—made up solely of Placentia council members—continually did business with bad people. They initially asked Roy D. DePaul to develop downtown Placentia. When the Weeklyrevealed his many business failings (see “Who the Hell Is Roy D. DePaul?” Oct. 3, 2003), DePaul politely declined the offer. The OnTrac board hired Placentia public works director Christopher Becker as OnTrac executive director in 2000–even though the move violated state conflict-of-interest laws. When the Weekly revealed that OnTrac officials bought a building owned by former Placentia mayor and OnTrac adviser George Ziegler at a sweetheart price, the grand jury launched an investigation, ultimately concluding that the deal was fine. But the appearance of unethical behavior scared off potential investors and contributed to OnTrac’s . . .

.Lack of political support: On Aug. 9, the Los Angeles Timesreported Placentia officials spent about $10 million developing their OnTrac pitch and promoting in Washington, D.C. But Yorba Linda, Fullerton and Anaheim—cities through which the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad also run and which would conceivably benefit from the deal—declined Placentia’s invitation to join the OnTrac project. The OCTA board of supervisors refused Placentia’s request for a $5.7 million loan. And Placentia officials never even successfully sold the idea to the city’s two congressional representatives, Republicans Gary Miller and Ed Royce—despite the fact that both sit on OnTrac’s advisory board. In fact, Royce voted against the transportation bill. Chalk that up as a brilliant victory for . . .

.Jerk-off city officials: From the beginning, Placentia council members and administrators openly mocked the concerns of downtown residents, most of whom are Latinos with roots in the area going back three and four generations. At Placentia’s first OnTrac meeting, in September 2003, city officials wouldn’t answer questions and told the capacity crowd, “You’ve got to deal with [redevelopment]. You know these things are coming, so you better do something about it.” Such gestures didn’t endear OnTrac to downtowners, which led to . . .

.An energized populace: At that Sept. 18 meeting, a fledgling group asked attendees for their names and contact information. Thus Citizens for a Better Placentia was born. For the next two years, volunteers searched through city records, packed City Council meetings, successfully captured two City Council posts in the 2004 elections and worked with government officials to expose the council’s missteps. Citizens for a Better Placentia also provided information that led the Orange County grand jury, the state controller’s office and the Orange County district attorney’s office to probe OnTrac for conflict-of-interest violations and misuse of gas-tax funds to pay off debts.

The bottom line for this train project? Derailed.


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