Commuter Train Plans Derailed : Transit: Negotiations over the San Diego-to-Oceanside line are stalled. A start-up, originally set for late 1992, will be delayed until tracks are purchased.


Transit officials have scrubbed the late 1992 start-up date for the Oceanside-to-San Diego commuter train and canceled plans for buying rail equipment.

No new timetable will be posted until transit agencies manage to buy the Santa Fe Railway tracks, they said.

"The earliest that we could get the commuter service up and running would be late 1994," Peter Aadland, marketing manager for the North County Transit District, said. "We are not setting another date, not until we conclude the purchase."

Optimism over a purchase of several hundred miles of Santa Fe tracks and right-of-way in Southern California, including the Oceanside-to-San Diego segment, was erased after Santa Fe negotiators walked away from the bargaining table last month and vowed not to return until the transit agencies made a counter-offer.

North County Transit, the lead agency in creating peak-hour commuter trains for the coastal communities of Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinitas and Del Mar-Solana Beach south to San Diego, canceled plans to acquire engines and double-decker commuter cars for the service but is proceeding with acquisition of land and station designs along the route.

The combined transit agencies in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties have offered $300 million for what transit officials estimate as 240 miles of track right-of-way. Santa Fe first offered to sell the rail lines for $1.3 billion, then last month offered to start negotiations at $800 million, leaving the two sides $500 million apart.

Mike Martin, manager of public affairs and spokesman for Santa Fe, said the transit agencies are asking for 307 miles of right-of-way in the five-county area, which has been valued at more than $2 billion.

"We did not lower our asking price to $800 million," the Santa Fe executive said. "We have said, 'offer us $800 million and then we will talk.' "

Martin said that Los Angeles and San Bernardino county officials have broken a negotiations blackout agreement by "making statements designed to put public pressure on us, to make us look like we are holding them up.

"We are not. We are asking for a fair price based on the value of the property," Martin said. He added that Santa Fe would not return to the negotiations "until there is significant movement on their part."

Aadland said that transit negotiators "are working with what we have. We feel we have offered a realistic price for the railroad. We do not have an unlimited amount of money and we don't feel that we can play around with the taxpayers' money by offering more than our appraisers say the property is worth."

What started as closed-door, no-publicity negotiations a year ago broke out into public warfare between the two sides last spring when each side accused the other of unfair dealings.

Los Angeles transit authorities reached agreement to purchase Southern Pacific and Union Pacific rail lines and accused Santa Fe negotiators of trying to bilk the public with unrealistic demands for their rail holdings.

Tom Larwin, general manager of San Diego's Metropolitan Transit Development Board, said the time lag of two years was necessary because the rolling stock for the commuter rail system requires a minimum of two years for delivery.

"I cannot speak for the other transit agencies, but in San Diego County we have only a limited amount of funds and if we spend it all on acquisition of right-of-way, we will not have sufficient funds to acquire the equipment or to build the stations. It's as simple as that," Larwin said.

Martin said that San Diego transit agencies did not participate in the verbal warfare that broke out last spring "because they did not want to be involved in a public brawl."

He said there have been talks with Metropolitan Transit authorities over acquisition of Santa Fe tracks between the Santa Fe Depot and a proposed Old Town station to the north as part of the San Diego Trolley system extension to Mission Valley and University City.

Negotiations on the overall rail acquisition, including the Fullerton-to-San Diego line that includes the North County commuter train route, is still in the hands of the joint transit agency negotiators, "and there appears to be no intent on their part of further movement," Martin said.

The Santa Fe spokesman stressed that the railroad negotiators "are willing to discuss extended methods of payment" that would allow the transit agencies to delay some payments until funds were available.

"That's one way they may accomplish what they seem to be trying to do, trying to buy a Mercedes on a Volkswagen bus budget," Martin said.

James Mills, chairman of the MTDB, said that the transit agency plays only a small role in the larger negotiations.

"Our situation is that we have so much money and they (Santa Fe) know how much we have. They keep hoping that we'll find the rest, that we will ask the (state) Legislature for it. I am not so sure that could happen."

Aadland commented that he thought the transit agencies' "offer is a fair one and if I were a Santa Fe stockholder, I'd be asking why they don't take a deal that offers the company the ability to move more freight and thus generate more revenues, which almost eliminates overhead and maintenance costs and which lets them walk away with $300 million in their pockets."

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