Twenty-five years ago, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) envisioned covering much of the county in a 90-mile spiderweb of light rail lines. That plan, known as CenterLine, was projected to cost a billion dollars. But it never really got beyond PowerPoint Presentations, and finally went away more than a decade ago.
Today a much shorter streetcar line is well on its way to fruition, even though its $408 million price tag is nearly half the old CenterLine cost. Scheduled to start running in 2022, the 4.1-mile OC Streetcar is projected to carry 7,300 passengers a day between the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center and a new transit station in Garden Grove, according to the latest figures from the OCTA. Just last week, the OCTA Board approved its Fiscal Year 2020 budget, which allocates $48.5 million for OC Streetcar construction.
If that ridership number seems small, know that development has historically been a greater motivator for the construction of streetcar lines. You can see it in the OCTA’s own OC Streetcar brochure, which lists “generate business development, boost interest and sales and create temporary and permanent jobs” as key benefits to the streetcar line.
“Ever since Portland, Oregon built a modern streetcar line between its downtown and the Pearl District — transforming it into a suddenly trendy neighborhood of pricey real estate — urbanists, civic boosters, and developers have been trying to replicate this example in cities across the country,” John Perry wrote in this 2017 piece for KNOCK. “Since the Portland Streetcar began running, similar systems have opened in Tacoma, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Detroit. The results have been… mixed, to say the least. New lines in Detroit, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. experienced extended delays prior to opening, while the streetcars in Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Salt Lake City have seen very underwhelming ridership.”
That the OC Streetcar will gentrify Santa Ana is a given. That it could possibly cause considerable displacement is also known.
“The proposed streetcar line would run through Lacy, a neighborhood with many city-owned, boarded up homes ready for eventual demolishment to make way for transit and the La Calle Cuatro shopping corridor,” states the 2017 KCET multimedia program The gentrification of Santa Ana: From Origin to Resistance. “There are mixed views in the community about the need for such transit. One immediate threat to the areas is that businesses and residents could be displaced due to rail construction.”
What’s more, a new Next City piece posted June 12 lays out myriad receipts on how light rail lines–and the OC Streetcar in particular–can contribute to gentrification:
- “Research shows gentrification tends to happen in neighborhoods with transit systems.”
- “A 2016 UC Berkeley study found that Orange County has the greatest share of neighborhoods considered ‘disadvantaged’ or susceptible to gentrification when compared to Los Angeles and San Diego counties.”
- “A 2015 National Institute for Transportation and Communities report found that rents for offices, retail stores and apartments were higher when closer to streetcar systems.”
But a much more important point to the Next City essay is the assertion that the OCTA isn’t doing much to help residents and business owners who are already in Santa Ana deal with the coming streetcar. Next City writer Alejandro Molina quotes Kris Fortin of Santa Ana Active Streets as saying that the OCTA needs to do more: “On matters concerning displacement or impact, it has not been something that has been addressed,” Fortin tells Next City.
Of course, OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter disputes this:
Eric Carpenter, a spokesman for the OCTA, says that on some matters of equity, the agency’s hands are tied. Land-use decisions are made by the county and individual cities. Both the cities of Garden Grove and Santa Ana signed off on the project. In Santa Ana, the City Council endorsed the streetcar despite initial concerns the project would cause resident displacement. Some downtown merchants early on also worried that traditional festivals including Cinco de Mayo, Fiestas Patrias, and the annual Day of the Dead event would be lost with the addition of the streetcar. City leaders assured residents that would not happen.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.