Orange County Monorail Plan Is Talk of the Towns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, they're all trying to hop aboard this train.

In traffic-choked Orange County, a proposal to build an 18-mile monorail line through the heart of the region has normally staid politicos and bureaucrats abuzz with anticipation.

The cities of Fullerton and Huntington Beach have been clamoring in recent weeks to join five central Orange County cities that have already started a push for the futuristic transportation system.

The proposal received another big boost last week when a Japanese development conglomerate announced that it wants to build a monorail station as part of a massive high-rise complex it plans for northern Santa Ana.

"It's a real significant milestone in putting together this project and making it a reality," said Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young, who is helping spearhead the effort for a regional monorail network. "We're hoping that developers see the value of having a monorail station as part of their project."

The network would link Disneyland and Anaheim Stadium in the north with the MainPlace shopping mall and Civic Center in Santa Ana, then continue south, serving several large office developments, John Wayne Airport, and the sprawling Irvine Spectrum office and industrial complex. The line could be extended to Fullerton, Huntington Beach or other cities that express a strong interest.

Other lines would branch off east and west to feed riders to the main system. For instance, the short spur planned at the airport would be expanded into a loop meandering through the Irvine business park, while another would link the Santa Ana Civic Center with the city's Amtrak station.

Some officials seem to be leaning toward traditional monorails akin to the type at Disneyland, which straddle a single rail and ride on wheels inside the undercarriage. Others have suggested that the best system might involve "magnetic levitation" trains, which use electromagnets to float the vehicle just inches above the tracks and provide propulsion. And some experts say traditional steel-wheel trolleys should not be ruled out.

The backbone of the system would be a line with monorail trains capable of traveling about 60 m.p.h. and running along an elevated rail stretching from Irvine in the south through various cities to as far north as Fullerton. Lower-speed monorail lines would branch off the main system to ferry passengers to locations to the east and west.

Officials say the monorail network--which they view as a clean, efficient method of easing highway congestion--could be built along existing streets, requiring the purchase of little or no private property.

Despite all the optimism, problems may loom.

So far, there has been little or no public discussion of the plans. No hearings have been held, no workshops convened. Though the idea certainly appeals to city leaders eager for a way out of traffic congestion, only time will tell how well it plays with residents or businesses in the shadow of a monorail line.

Before that, however, local officials will have to deal with a bevy of questions, most notably how such a grand undertaking, which could cost nearly $1 billion, would be financed.

Young and many other supporters hope that a private firm can be lured to build and operate the monorail, while the cities along the route ante up the median strips on their streets as the right of way for the elevated rail system. With developers building the stations, the line could be realized at virtually no cost to taxpayers other than what they throw into the fare box, they predict.

But some officials suggest that it is unlikely such a rosy scenario will become reality. Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a staunch advocate of a regional monorail system, maintains that the project will probably require a hefty dose of public financing.

"I think it would be wonderful if private investment could build this," Agran said. "We're going to certainly induce as much private investment as possible. But to suggest somehow that this will be handled almost entirely by the private sector may be misleading. I'd like to be proven wrong, but I think there will have to be substantial public investment."

There is precedent for such thinking. No public rail system has ever been financed, built and operated strictly by the private sector, transit officials say.

"It's been done at airports and amusement parks, but not with a public transit system, certainly not in North America," said Brian Pearson, development director at the Orange County Transit District. "That is not to say it couldn't happen if it was tied in with certain development efforts."

Other local officials, meanwhile, have privately speculated that Young has eagerly pounced on the issue because of its appeal with voters. Much as construction of the San Diego trolley helped boost the political stock of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) when he was mayor of that city, a successful monorail could fuel the career of the politician who shepherds it in Orange County.

But supporters of the effort to lure private investment say such motivations may not be such a bad thing.

"Dan Young is extremely politically astute, and he's grabbed a tiger by the tail and gone for a ride," said Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach political consultant. "Now he finds a lot of people wanting to join him for the ride.

"The naysayers ought to jump out of the way. If they want, they can stand on the sidelines and say a private approach isn't going to work. They'll be in the same position as the people with horses who watched the Model A's roll by."

Young, meanwhile, remains optimistic, noting that he has received inquiries from about 20 transportation firms intrigued by the idea.

"My philosophy has been, 'You don't know until you ask,' " Young said. "The goal is for the private sector to respond to our offer, to take the ball and run with it. We want them to design, construct and operate this system. That's the goal. And we won't know until we get responses whether it's realistic."

Even officials in Irvine acknowledge that the effort to seek a privately built system is worth a try. As now envisioned, the coalition of cities would ask for proposals from private firms as early as April.

"I think the private sector is going to see the wisdom of this project and get on the bandwagon," said Paul Brady Jr., Irvine city manager. "The public sector cannot do it by itself."

If public money does end up coming into the picture, Irvine is the only city that has a good prospect of accumulating a sizable bankroll any time soon. City officials managed to get funding for a monorail line included in a state rail bond measure on the June ballot. If the proposition passes, $125 million in matching funds would flow into Irvine's city coffers.

"I don't know what the other cities have going for them, but I seriously doubt they have readily available resources that are only six months away," Agran said.

With that money in hand, Irvine would probably be the first city to put the line in place and, as such, be in a position to dictate what type of technology is used. Agran's hope is that an Irvine system could demonstrate the effectiveness of a monorail in Orange County, spurring state and federal officials to provide more funds so the line could be extended.

But it could also create a problem. Other cities could be put in a position of either following Irvine's lead or creating a patchwork regional transportation system combining varying types of rail systems that might not even be capable of operating on the same track.

Monorail boosters like Young say all the gloomy predictions are ridiculous, arguing that the effort to build a monorail line can be coordinated so the various cities are happy with the results.

"The goal is to have a regional system that is compatible," said Young, who helped fuel the effort by calling officials from the cities together for a meeting last November. "I'm trying to head off any problems by pulling us all together now. We want to make sure this system is compatible from one city to the next."

All this talk of monorails was sparked by a 1988 proposal to build a short monorail line to ferry passengers from the terminal at John Wayne Airport to an office complex planned nearby on MacArthur Boulevard by McDonnell Douglas Realty Co. Construction has been delayed because Irvine officials have yet to approve plans for the office complex, which is expected to get a final review in February or March.

When Irvine managed to squeeze a spot on the June rail bond measure, the prospects for a regional system grew. At last November's meeting, county officials and representatives of Santa Ana, Irvine, Orange, Costa Mesa and Anaheim agreed to work toward issuing a joint request for proposals from private firms that might be willing to build and operate the system.

O.C. MONORAIL: A PROPOSAL FOR THE FUTURE

The backbone of the monorail system proposed in Orange County would be trains capable of about 60 m.p.h. running along a raised rail stretching from Irvine in the south through various cities to as far north as Fullerton. Lower-speed monorail lines would branch off the main system to ferry passengers to locations to the east and west.

As envisioned, the monorail network would link Disneyland and Anaheim Stadium in the north with the MainPlace/Santa Ana mall and the Civic Center in Santa Ana, several large office developments, John Wayne Airport and the sprawling Irvine Spectrum office and industrial complex. It would also link up in Anaheim with a high-speed "super train" planned to run from the city's train station to Las Vegas.

The line could also be extended to Fullerton, Huntington Beach or other cities that express a strong interest.

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