It is rare for a suburban city of 50,000 people take the lead in a $440 million transportation project. The City of Placentia in northern Orange County has, though, and the effort has stirred political controversy and placed the city under financial strain.

The project is known as OnTrac, short for Orange North-American Trade Rail Access Corridor. The currently preferred alternative involves building a five-mile-long trench for railroad tracks that slice though the town from west to east. The project would look and function much like the ballyhooed Alameda Corridor, which connects the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports with rail yards near downtown Los Angeles.

In fact, the Placentia project is also called Alameda Corridor East because Placentia's problem is created by trains headed to and from the downtown rail yards. All 10 north-south arterials in town have an at-grade rail crossing. Three decades ago, that was no big deal because fewer than 20 trains a day went through town. But as the shipping ports have become busier, the number of trains has increased to about 70 per day. Analysts expect train traffic to more than double during the next 20 years. One hundred fifty trains per day equates to a train about every 10 minutes on average, which means more often than not there would be a train somewhere in the residential suburb's city limits.

“Everybody knows this is a problem that's bad and it's going to get a whole lot worse,” Placentia Mayor Scott Brady said. “The City of Placentia must do something about the train traffic that is barreling through our community. The question is how best we should do it.”

Last November's City Council election was, essentially, a referendum of OnTrac. Brady, an OnTrac proponent, narrowly won re-election, but two candidates who were critical of the project also won. Although the new council has not yet backed away from the project, there appears to be movement toward a cheaper alternative that involves a series of overpasses and underpasses.

A group called Citizens for a Better Placentia has become the most outspoken OnTrac opponent. “While the train in the ditch is a good project,” said group co-founder Craig Green, “the obtaining of funds to do it didn't seem plausible. In fact, it still doesn't.”

The city embarked on the project in 2000 under the assumption that state and federal funds would be forthcoming. State and federal transportation experts and elected officials recognize the problem caused by the increasing number of trains hauling cargo through metropolitan regions, especially Los Angeles. Placentia got rolling with OnTrac just as state and federal transportation funds were drying up, though. The state was supposed to supply $30 million up front, but state budget troubles have held up half of that amount, said Chris Becker, OnTrac's executive director. Placentia also got caught by Congress's failure to pass a transportation spending bill last year. In its final form, the failed bill contained $900 million for projects of national economic significance, including OnTrac.

All of this means that Placentia has spent millions of its own money and borrowed funds on the project. To raise the money, the OnTrac Joint Powers Authority - which is merely the city and its redevelopment agency - has issued certificates of participation, and the city has sold surplus land and even mortgaged parkland. Altogether, the city has accumulated about $35 million in debts for the project. Some services have been reduced and other capital projects postponed.

Still, the project continues to advance. In January, the first part of the project was completed - a railroad overpass at Melrose Avenue, next to the city's aging downtown. A large transit-oriented redevelopment project is proposed for the area.

The OnTrac preferred alternative calls for putting the train in a 35-foot-deep trench starting just east of Melrose and running to about the eastern city limits. This would eliminate eight at-grade crossings. An environmental impact report for this part of the project is due out this summer.

Becker called the project essential because the trains - mostly Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) cargo trains, but also some Amtrak and Metrolink passenger trains - cut the town in half. Emergency responses can be delayed. About 300 school buses cross the tracks daily, he said.

Another part of the project is a “quiet zone.” This involves the installation of extended concrete medians, more elaborate rail crossing gates, and additional signals and signs. The $7 million, project, to which the federal government has contributed $3.4 million, will allow trains to pass through town without having to blow their whistles. In 2001, BNSF trains started sounding their horns again, leading to outrage from people who live near the tracks. Eventually, putting the train in the trench would eliminate the need for whistles and alleviate some other train noise.

Although the train-in-a-ditch concept and the quiet zone are fairly new ideas, what might be most unusual about OnTrac is Placentia's willingness to go it alone. The Alameda Corridor East Construction Authority, which is dealing with the same issues in the San Gabriel Valley, has more participants.

Transportation projects of this magnitude are regional in nature, observed Ray Young, a city planning professor and dean of graduate studies at California State University, Fullerton. The neighboring cities of Brea, Fullerton, Yorba Linda and Anaheim have shown little interest in joining the OnTrac JPA, despite requests from Placentia. Neighboring cities have at-grade rail crossings of the same line, but the issue has not received the same level of attention. In Fullerton and Anaheim, the tracks run through industrial areas, not large residential neighborhoods like Placentia's. Fullerton is working on one major grade separation project.

“Other jurisdictions do not see it as a great community priority,” said Young. “I'm a little surprised that it gained such prominence and such a central role in Placentia's agenda over about 24 to 36 months.”

Detractors say the project gained prominence because of the aggressiveness of consultants, including Becker. When he was hired to run the OnTrac project for $4.5 million over 10 years, Becker was the city's public works director. For a period, he served as both lead consultant and public works director.

“How,” asked Citizens for a Better Placentia's Green, “could the city's director of public works hire himself as a consultant for $450,000?” Project opponents have demanded a criminal investigation.

The city has since reworked Becker's contract at a lower rate. Becker denies wrongdoing and contends the complaints are politically driven.

Scott Brady, Placentia mayor, (714) 993-8117.
Chris Becker, OnTrac, (714) 577-5819.
Craig Green, Citizens for a Better Placentia, (714) 854-9100.
Ray Young, CSU Fullerton, (714) 278-3602.
OnTrac website: