Orange County’s first modern streetcar is becoming part of a national controversy, with some congressional Republicans in objecting to $9.4 million for the project being included in the next COVID-19 relief bill.
The OC Streetcar has been under construction since late 2018, with crews now laying track for electric trains that will get their power from overheard wires. The project will cover 4.1 miles between transit centers in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, with 10 stops near major government buildings, shopping districts and residential hubs. Construction is nearly halfway complete and riders are expected to start using the service in 2023.
Democrats say it’s appropriate to include money for the OC Streetcar in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The pandemic, they note, has slashed revenue for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which is building the project.
“Transit agencies have faced unprecedented challenges due to falling ridership, lost revenue and increased costs,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who represents most of Garden Grove and supports the federal relief package.
“Congress is taking swift action to maintain service, prevent delays to capital improvements and ensure a quick recovery,” he added. “Without federal action, we risk long-term disruptions to service which could hamstring local communities for years to come.”
But Republicans identified the OC Streetcar as one of five transportation projects they wanted stripped out of the stimulus bill.
The Senate narrowly approved the $1.9 trillion relief package Saturday without considering a request from Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana to remove money for the OC Streetcar and four other transit projects. The House of Representatives is expected to approve the Senate’s revised version of the bill this week before it heads to President Joe Biden for a signature.
Other Republicans, including some close to the project, also are arguing against the money.
“Any relief passed by Congress in support of the American people should be targeted, temporary and tied to COVID-19,” said Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Seal Beach, who isn’t expected to support the current iteration of the American Rescue Plan and voted with all House Republicans on Feb. 27 against the initial version.
“This streetcar, which does nothing in support of COVID relief, already cost taxpayers more than $100 million per mile,” added Steel, whose 48th District includes a portion of Garden Grove. “These funds would be better spent helping our teachers and students get back into school safely, and getting residents get back to work.”
The American Rescue Plan currently includes $170 billion to help schools safely reopen, plus another $50 billion in support for small businesses.
The OC Streetcar was first discussed back in 2006 as a way to ease traffic congestion on local roads, connect other transit networks, lower carbon emissions and solve parking issues in crowded areas such as the Civic Center and downtown Santa Ana.
The streetcar will carry passengers between between the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center and a new transit stop at Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove. Six trains will run along Santa Ana Boulevard, Fourth Street and the Pacific Electric right-of-way, stopping at 10 locations each way every 10 to 15 minutes.
Up to 210 people will fit on each train, with OCTA projecting about 7,300 riders per day based on pre-pandemic data, in part because the streetcar will replace some existing bus routes.
Local leaders originally projected the streetcar could be operational by 2017 if it relied entirely on local funds such as Measure M, Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements first approved in 1990.
After the county looked to state and federal funds to help build the project, securing a $149 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and starting construction in November 2018, project supporters pushed the streetcar’s completion date to 2021. Testing on the lines is now slated to start in late 2022, with the first passengers likely to come onboard in 2023.
The project’s price tag also has gone up. The first phase of the streetcar was projected in 2017 to cost $300 million. Since the 2018 groundbreaking, the total projected cost has been set at $408 million.
On Thursday, OCTA staff plans to ask the agency’s Transit Committee to increase the project budget by $15.7 million, for an updated price tag of $423.44 million.
The project’s contingency fund has been spent faster than expected, according to OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter. He said contractors have run into delays and cost increases as they had to remove contaminated soil, deal with old rail ties and carefully handle Native American remains uncovered along the project’s route.
While COVID-19 actually helped speed up construction a bit, since so many areas businesses were closed that work could be done during daytime hours, it’s also been devastating to OCTA revenue.
Over the past 12 months, OCTA Chair Andrew Do said in a March 5 press release, ridership on the county’s bus system has sunk from nearly 125,000 daily boardings to as low as 30,000. Ridership has leveled off and now consistently runs at about half of what it was before the pandemic.
Measure M funds, which reflect sales tax countywide, also are down 7% from before the pandemic.
Still, the OCTA didn’t ask for additional federal funding for the project, according to Carpenter. The agency understands the streetcar was among several federally funded transit projects identified nationwide to receive money through the stimulus package in order to keep them moving forward.
Local Democrats including Lowenthal and former Rep. Harley Rouda, who lost the CA-48 seat to Steel in November, fought to get federal funding for the project even before the pandemic hit. Now, supporters say COVID-19 funding isn’t just about staving off further delays, it’s also about creating good-paying local jobs at a time when they’re badly needed. Orange County has lost more than 142,000 jobs during the pandemic, and unemployment has more than tripled, to nearly 7.4%, according to state data released in late January.
“We want jobs not handouts,” said Rep. Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, whose 46th District includes Santa Ana. “The Santa Ana and Garden Grove streetcar project is all about good jobs and improving our transportation infrastructure.”
The Santa Ana to Garden Grove route originally was planned to be the first of multiple segments for the OC Streetcar. Supporters envisioned a network connecting riders to some of the county’s major business and recreational hubs, including Disneyland.
The OCTA will decide on any additional phases to the OC Streetcar, Carpenter said. No additional segments are being studied at this time.
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