Orange County’s 1st Streetcar on Its Way, Even as OCTA Faces Challenges

December 21, 2020 Updated: December 21, 2020

Orange County installed its first modern streetcar rail set in Santa Ana’s historic downtown this month.

The rail was laid between Santa Ana Boulevard and Bristol Street, and crews are working to install more rail sets westbound toward Raitt Street.

“I’m proud that, despite the difficulties of the pandemic, the OC Streetcar project has continued to move forward to reach this milestone moment,” Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said in a press release.

“The Streetcar will revitalize businesses along its route, better connect residents with essential services, and will augment our public transit options while taking more automobiles off of the streets.”

The streetcar will serve downtown Santa Ana’s dense employment areas, the county and local government offices, and courthouses in the Civic Center.

The route will connect to the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center (SARTC) and a new transit hub in Garden Grove on the corner of Harbour Boulevard and Westminster Avenue.

Six vehicles—and two spares—will operate daily on the 4.15-mile route. There will be 10 stops in each direction with a waiting time of 10 to 15 minutes. The price of a streetcar ride will be the same as the bus, $2.

The rest of the track, platforms, and electrical system is currently being built, and work is underway on new curbs and gutters, asphalt, and restriping of the streets for installation.

Construction for the streetcar vehicles—the Siemens S700 model—began in late 2019, and they’re still being built in northern California. Once the construction is complete and they’ve been tested and approved, the OC Streetcar will begin operations.

The Streetcar is expected to start running in 2022. The whole project is expected to cost $408 million, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) spokesperson Eric Carpenter told The Epoch Times.

“This is an important and very exciting moment for this project,” OCTA Chairman Steve Jones, also the Mayor of Garden Grove, said in the press release announcing the laying of the first track set on Dec. 15. “The public can begin to see the actual rail being set into the street for Orange County’s first modern-electric streetcar.”

Adjusting to the CCP Virus

The OCTA will consider expanding its due dates for some capital improvement projects due to its revised revenue forecast amid the pandemic.

“As an organization, we worked diligently to proactively address the unprecedented challenges of this public health crisis,” Jones said in a press release.

The Transportation Development Act (TDA) sales tax is the primary source of revenue for OCTA’s bus operations. The tax funds about half of the operating costs for the bus program.

“[TDA sales tax] has been significantly impacted by the pandemic,” OCTA Director of Finance and Administration Sean Murdoch said at a board meeting on Dec. 14.

OCTA forecasts an 18 percent decrease in revenue from TDA taxes due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

Paratransit, or individualized transportation without fixed routes, accounts for 27 percent of OCTA’s operating budget, but only 6 percent of the total boardings (number of times a passenger boards a bus, each time representing a fare paid).

OCTA spends more on paratransit than all other similar transit agencies within the state by a wide margin.

“OCTA is an outlier among its peers in terms of the percentage of operating funds it spends on paratransit services,” Murdoch said, adding that if spending on paratransit were similar to other agencies in California, then the amount of long-term fixed-transit services could return to pre-pandemic levels.

The impact of these high expenditures on paratransit services means less funding available for other operations, such as fixed-transit—or transportation with fixed routes and schedules.

A proposal to OCTA’s board to address these setbacks is still in the works, and will be presented and voted upon in January 2021.