May 5, 2004 - From the July, 2003 issue

Maglev Proposal For LA-To-Anaheim Orange Line Spearheaded By Southgate Mayor De La Torre

High-speed rail is rapidly becoming a viable option for meeting California's inter-regional and intra-regional transportation needs. One intra-regional proposal gaining expediency is the Orange Line, which would connect Union Station to Anaheim, with stops throughout Orange County. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Hector De La Torre, Mayor of the City of Southgate and Chairman of the Orange Line Development Authority, in which he discusses the Orange Line proposal.

Brief our readers on the goals and planned route for the proposed Southern California Maglev -Orange Line.

We want to go from Downtown LA to the Anaheim/Santa Ana area in Orange County. The reason is to provide an alternative to the public-commuters, tourists and travelers-to get from point A to point B in a way that will be not just competitive with the car, but actually provide an added incentive to get out of your car. High-speed rail gets you there faster than your own car. We think that that's something that's going to need to happen if we're going to get people out of their cars and using public transit in Southern California.

Elaborate on the proposed route, speed and location of station stops?

The stops would be about every two miles or so along the old Pacific Electric line. This will not go over 200 miles per hour like some of the other high-speed trains currently out on the market. But, it would go over 100 miles per hour using magnetic levitation. Maglev trains can accelerate and decelerate very quickly, smoothly and very quietly. It will have elevated columns much like the monorail at Disneyland, so it will not interfere with the normal flow of vehicular traffic. A good chunk of the right-of-way, the part that was the Pacific Electric Red Line, already is accessible to lay down track.

With stops about every two miles along the route, there can be some positive economic development, both residential and commercial, near the stations. So, some of these cities in the core of Southeast LA County and in Northern Orange County will see a benefit from the train as well.

Who are the chief advocates for this Maglev Rail Line?

So far, the cities along the corridor are pushing this along, providing some of the initial planning money. We have the bulk of the cities in Southeast LA County, except for one. And, the city of Los Angeles is studying the plan. On the Orange County side, we have a handful of cities going all the way to Garden Grove at this time.

The idea is that this line would be both a commuter line and a line for tourists. And, if we went down to John Wayne Airport, we could pick up some travelers going to and from the airport.

How would the Orange line connect to a network of other high-speed lines in California?

Well there are a lot of options right now for high-speed rail. There is the California line that you mentioned, going from the Bay Area down the Central Valley to Southern California. We have the California-Nevada Line, between Las Vegas and Anaheim. You have a number of lines within Southern California between, for example, LAX and March Air Force Base and another line between Lancaster/Palmdale and LAX. So those are a couple of the other lines being mentioned in addition to ours.

The idea with our Orange Line is, again, to get mixed uses so that we get maximum ridership 24/7. That's the only way one of these undertakings is going to work. You can't just rely on commuter traffic. You have got to have other traffic on the evenings and weekends to make these things financially feasible.

Many commentators on inter-city rail have noted that it's difficult to construct a cost-benefit analysis in support of such projects. What's the Orange Line's funding mechanism likely to be? How will this project be sold to the public?

There are some private parties who are interested in this project. What we're looking to do is, hopefully, turn this into a public-private partnership along the lines of what the Alameda Corridor did for the container traffic. We want to get some public-private partnership in there to try to not just have it all be public money going into this project. The financing method would be that you would float some bonds and then take the revenues from the project and pay off the bonds, much like they did with the Alameda corridor. That's the gist of the financing mechanism.

How does the Orange Line compete for funding with the envisioned California Rail Line, the California/Nevada Line and the LAX to Palmdale high speed rail proposal?

I see them as completely different. Some of those other lines are single-use. The California Line is more of an alternative to flying or driving the long distance between Southern California and Northern California. The airport-to-airport lines just won't see the 24/7 ridership on a regular basis. Having airports as endpoints doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Are they trying to get people to fly into an airport and then take this line to another airport then to fly on to somewhere else from there. The logic of that escapes me.

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Within the urban area you want to maximize your public transit, you want to give people an alternative that gets them there in a way that is special, that has something additional to offer. In our case, we offer speed. There is no way you can get, for example, from Garden Grove to downtown LA in under 30 minutes, no matter how you go. Well, we can do that at the speeds we're talking about and with the number of stops that we're talking about along the way. That's something that I think is a strong sell to get the readership up that can make this project financially feasible.

How have you engaged, as Mayor of Southgate, with the MTA and other regional authorities that might allocate dollars for projects like the Orange Line? How does Southgate get its voice heard at the MTA?

We don't get involved at that larger level. We have a regional representative at MTA for the Gateway Cities. We also have a little bit of involvement at Southern California Association of Governments. What we tend to do is work through the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, which represents the 27 cities in Southeast LA County. Through the GCCG, we work together to come up with projects that provide a regional benefit and we push for them.

Being that you are the new Mayor of Southgate, we would be remiss not to ask you about the political upheaval in your city. Give us a synopsis of what necessitated new leadership? And what the newly elected now hope to accomplish?

It's important to note that I'm the new mayor, I don't want to be confused with the old one. I was on the City Council while all of the suspect dealings were taking place. And, despite arguing against a lot of the dubious activity they had undertaken, we're still finding deals that I, as a policy maker, had no idea were being made. It was city government run amok and they were spending money in areas where they shouldn't have been spending and making commitments to projects despite the fact that we didn't have any money with which to follow through.

For example, they made commitments of $36 million on projects and we only had $23 million to spend. So, we're trying to unravel some of those deals and hopefully we'll be successful. Otherwise, we're going to be in a lot of trouble financially. We just approved our budget for this next fiscal year and our general fund budget is balanced, just barely. But, our special funds and enterprise funds are all in the red and we're going to have to make some adjustments to get those into the black.

What are the lessons to be learned from Southgate's experience?

We got a lot of media attention, which was very helpful in getting the public focused on what was going on. As a result, the public took action through the recall and then the subsequent municipal election. So, the media attention was very important and the voters coming together to take action was equally important in order to make the change. Without either of those pieces, it would have never happened.

Is Southgate's experience with misfeasance in city hall common or uncommon in the region?

I don't think that there are many other governing bodies that are that brazen. You're talking about a city that had a $13 million general fund surplus two years ago and we're broke now. As the heat was rising in the last couple of months, they got even more bold in the amount of money that they were spending and the amount of money that they were committing to projects. One of the projects was committed to the former business partner of our former City Treasurer/Deputy City Manager. It got ridiculous towards the end. But, it takes media attention to get the public's attention. Then, the public has to take action and there's no other way around that process. There are investigations being undertaken by the D.A. and by the U.S. Attorney, but obviously that's been going on for a while and that process isn't complete. So, the voters had to take action to bring an end to it.

Given how little media attention is given to local government in this vast region, how might citizens and cities in California best learn from Southgate experience?

I wish I knew. I was in Washington, DC for five years. Upon becoming an elected official in Southgate, I was surprised at how little anybody was paying attention to what was going on. In Washington, you have the national press and they're constantly watching what's going on. Here, in these small cities in LA County-and we have over 80 cities-that's very hard to do. Again, I don't think the level of corruption we experienced is that common, certainly not to the crazy extreme that it was taken in Southgate. But, we're just thankful that we're on the road to recovery. It's probably going take a couple of years, especially with the state's budget crisis and, again, these deals that we still have to unravel.

Again, with so little media attention paid to local issues, how does one build a constituency for a multi-billion dollar strategic investment of the kind you are proposing be made in the Southern California Orange Line?

Like all public works projects in California, you have to look ahead and you have to build a coalition of folks who can make it happen. You need to bring together the business community, the labor unions, all of the folks who made the pervious round of public works projects in California work-the building of the UC system and the aqueduct and the state highway system. You need to build a consensus by those parties outside of a political context.

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