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Tracking Progress : Irvine Hub Dedicated as Start of ‘Railroad Renaissance’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the old passenger train depot in East Irvine was closed in 1947, automobiles, freeways and bus travel were being touted as the future of mass transportation in Southern California.

After a 43-year hiatus and with the freeways clogged as never before, the train is back. And this time it is being hailed as a “railroad renaissance” that will help relieve the congestion and pollution that the maze of freeways helped spawn in the era of the automobile.

With great fanfare Wednesday, officials dedicated the county’s newest train station in Irvine, another stop on the Amtrak line for traffic-weary commuters headed north to Los Angeles or south to San Diego.

“It’s as if we’re rediscovering rail and it feels very good,” said Carolyn Peirce Ewing, a deputy director of the California Department of Transportation, which contributed about $4 million for the Irvine station. “And it didn’t take us 25 years to build this station, the way it did with some (freeway) interchanges.”

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With its stark, sleek lines and geometric-patterned rooftop beams, the 8,000-square-foot Irvine Transportation Center stands out among the buildings surrounding it in the Irvine Spectrum industrial complex on Barranca Parkway at the corner of Ada.

Experts see the $13-million facility as a way station for van pools, buses and the granddaddy of transportation dreams--a monorail system linking south Irvine with the John Wayne Airport and other parts of the county.

“Someday, people will be able to take the train here, make a transfer onto a (monorail) system and be whizzed off to work, all without the use of a private automobile,” said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran.

For starters, the transportation center will serve as an Amtrak station, beginning June 6, for six daily stops on the heavily traveled route between San Diego and Los Angeles, said John Harris, principal planner for city transportation. The schedule includes stops for Amtrak’s first West Coast commuter train from San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles, offering discount fares and early morning departures.

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The commuter train, subsidized by the County Transportation Commission, will leave the Irvine station at 6:15 a.m. and arrive at Union Station in Los Angeles at 7:25. The commuter train leaves Union Station at 5:45 p.m. and arrives in Irvine at 6:43.

In addition to the commuter train, which operates only on weekdays, two other regularly scheduled Amtrak trains will makes stops at the Irvine station each day. About 2 million passengers a year now ride the eight daily, round-trip Amtrak trains between San Diego and Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, an Amtrak train made a special stop at the station shortly before 2 p.m., carrying a carful of city, county and state dignitaries as well as two celebrity mothers featured in a ride-sharing advertising campaign sponsored by Caltrans.

“I’m very impressed,” said Jacqueline Stallone, mother of Sylvester Stallone. “I remember when I used to think of Irvine as . . . ‘Who needs it?’ ” Georgia Holt, mother of Cher, was also along for the ride.

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The facility sits on 10.5 acres donated to the city by the Irvine Co. Its first tenant will be the nonprofit Irvine Spectrum Transportation Management Assn., which will coordinate van pools, ride-sharing, bicycle commuting and train travel for employees in the complex.

Charity Gavaza, executive director of the association, said the organization is securing state funding to help subsidize the cost of an Orange County Transit District Dial-A-Ride van that is scheduled to meet all the trains and transport employees between the workplaces and the train station.

Agran touted Irvine’s location as the ideal center for a countywide transportation system, and said other South County cities could develop plans to link up with the Irvine hub.

Mission Viejo Councilman Norman Murray said preliminary discussions among San Juan Capistrano, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo officials show support for a train-oriented transportation center similar to Irvine’s at the planned junction of Crown Valley Parkway and the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor. But that may not happen until the late 1990s, after the tollway is built, Murray said.

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