Slow train coming: After years of planning, cities say Orangeline project moving forward

If the details of the Orangeline light rail line seem a little murky, don’t fret.  After nine years, the people building it are just figuring it out for themselves.

In 2002, the area’s regional planning agency released a futuristic plan for an elevated, 120 mph magnetic levitation train between Los Angeles and Orange counties. Construction was supposed to be underway by 2008.

But due to funding problems and infighting between cities along the route, virtually nothing has been started.

Nearly a decade later, cities officials say they finally have the plan back on track. The project qualified for $240 million in Measure R funds, and cities are working together to concoct a viable plan for the route, which could include a stop in Downey near the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.

During the next few months, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) will release what is basically a route plan for the project. The document — ‘Pacific Electric Right of Way/West Santa Ana Branch Corridor Alternative Analysis,’ — will use data to set ground rules for the route and qualify it for federal dollars.

Mayor Luis Marquez, the city’s point man on the Orangeline said the cities along the route are unified in their desire to get a train built.

“It’s true that we are, right now, a few steps behind everybody else,” Marquez said.  “But this is an exciting time. All the cities are finally behind it and we’re all moving in the same direction. We’re really standing together. If the MTA or another agency were to come in and tell us that they want something different, like a bus route. I really think that we could unanimously say, ‘No. We want this alternative.’”

Marquez is the vice chairman of the 14-member Orangeline Development Authority (OLDA), which includes Artesia, Bell, Bellflower, Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, Cerritos, Cudahy, Downey, Glendale, Huntington Park, Maywood, Paramount, Santa Clarita, South Gate and Vernon.

The train would run along the abandoned Pacific Electric “Red Car” right of way, a vestige of the legendary light-rail system that served Southern California until the 1950s. And, when completed, it would go from Santa Clarita to Santa Ana or maybe farther. The details are still coming together, those planning it said. It would carry about 50,000 riders each day.

The SCAG study only deals with the southern part from Los Angeles to Orange County, a 33-mile route.

When the Orangeline was proposed in 2002, the train line was supposed to be private-sector funded, which didn’t work out, partly due to infighting by cities along the route.

“It got tied up in bureaucracy,” Downey Councilman Mario Guerra said. “Everybody had their own plan.”

The cities are now taking an approach that focuses on land uses along the train, said Michael Kodama, director of the Orangeline Development Authority. The train would be built with public money, and the land around the stations would attract private development, Kodama said.

“Name me one transportation project that’s been completely funded by the private sector?” he asked. “I can’t think of one. People forget, but the Transcontinental Railroad got a lot of government help.”

Cities can zone for multi-level housing, dense office complexes, retail centers and other uses that would work near a train stop, he said.

In Downey, officials plan to work with the county on the development of about 120 acres on the south property of Rancho Los Amigos near the proposed station. Other cities are also considering adding stations along the route.

With more stops on the line, OLDA is considering using technology other than maglev, possibly something that moves slower than 120 mph, Marquez said.

“We’re looking at things a little differently, looking at different technologies,” he said.  “The thing is to be open to all the technology, and what makes the most sense for all the cities.”

Kodama said the cities are even open to installing parallel tracks, so some trains could skip stations that aren’t as busy as others.

Karen Heit, the transportation specialist from the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, said she understands that it seems like train projects move slowly.

“The fact is, they take forever,” she said. “I get it from the public all the time. I say, ‘Just hang on, in 10 years, it will happen.’”

The area needs the line, she said.

It’s a route not served by any major freeway, and it will take people to jobs in Los Angeles, Commerce and Vernon.

“Commerce and Vernon have a huge numbers of jobs,” she said.  “You’re serving a commute pattern right there that’s not really served.”

Even so, the $240 million from Measure R is tiny piece of the total cost, which in 2002 was estimated to be $3.6 billion.

Kodama said OLDA is committed to planning based on needs of cities along the route.

“From the ground up,” as he called it.

The Orangeline is even looking for a new name, and OLDA will soon announce a contest for a better moniker.

“If you’ve got any suggestions, let us know,” he said.


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