Planners Seek Public Funds for Rail Line : Transportation: The group underestimated ridership and now says private money won't be enough for an LAX-Palmdale high-speed train.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The consortium proposing to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles International Airport and Palmdale, a $1-billion project that was to be privately financed, on Monday asked for financial support from Los Angeles County because ridership estimates have been reduced by almost half.

In response to a request from the consortium, a panel of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission recommended consideration of public funding for the proposed 69-mile line. One county official said the potential bill could reach $100 million a year.

The turnabout came after the project's backers reduced ridership projections for the line's first segment--the 36 miles from LAX to Santa Clarita--from 100,000 riders a day to about 55,000, with a corresponding drop in expected revenues, county officials said.

John E. Chiaverini, a spokesman for the consortium, acknowledged that there had been a reduction in ridership estimates, although he could not confirm the precise numbers. He said he could not explain the reason.

The consortium apparently had earlier overestimated the number of bus riders who might make connections with the train, said Linda Bohlinger, director of capital planning and programming for the county commission.

The county transportation panel's meeting Monday produced the first public indication that the proposed rail line--which would use futuristic magnetic levitation technology to reach speeds up to 100 m.p.h--might not be entirely privately financed. Its backers are seeking approval for the project under an experimental state privatization program for transit projects.

However, consortium and county officials said the project could still go forward with local public funding, because the state requires only that no state or federal funds be used. State officials in mid-September are to choose up to four such projects out of eight submitted statewide.

Bohlinger said county officials are willing to consider local funding for the project. Based on preliminary projections, the public's obligation could approach $100 million a year for up to 15 years, she said.

Bohlinger said the consortium's own projections showed that public funding for the line could amount to one-third to one-half of its total operating and construction costs for its first 15 years. Only at that point, she said, was the line projected to become self-supporting.

"The commission and our executive director want to portray the message that we're looking at this very positively," Bohlinger said. "They're not dismissing this out of hand. They're willing to look at the possibility of the commission being financially involved."

The commission's Finance and Programming Committee voted 5 to 0 Monday to explore public funding options, including possible contributions from the commission, the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Department of Airports. The full commission is set to consider the issue Aug. 22.

Chiaverini--a San Francisco-based senior vice president of the Perini Corp. of Framingham, Mass., the company leading the consortium proposing the train--confirmed that lowered ridership projections forced the search for possible public funding.

Chiaverini said the consortium still is reviewing the line's ridership estimates, and thus its estimated finances could change. But he added, "There's a strong possibility that it would require some outside assistance."

Bohlinger said one scenario could have the consortium build the line but then have the commission take control upon its opening in 1997. The commission and other public agencies would pay for the construction and for operating costs not covered by fares and revenue from related development.

The commission itself is already $300 million short of the money it needs for its 10-year, $9.6-billion rail development program. That includes many other projects, including Metro Rail. But Bohlinger said the commission still might be able to arrange public funding for the LAX-Palmdale line.

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