Just when the new Southeast Amtrak station seemed bound for the City of Commerce, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission gave Norwalk officials another month to demonstrate why the regional facility ought to be in their city instead.
Commerce officials claim the delay is political because Norwalk is the largest city in the district of Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, the Transportation Commission chairman. Commission staff members favor the Commerce site because the station can be built there for about $200,000, as opposed to $1.7 million in Norwalk.
"We just got snookered," said Ray Ramirez, assistant director of community development in Commerce. "We had no idea this was going to happen. We figured they would go along with the staff recommendation."
Craig Johnson, a rail transportation officer for the commission, said the staff will not change its preference for Commerce. "I think they're just stalling," he said of Norwalk's request for the delay.
Norwalk officials say commission staff unfairly turned down their financing plan--a combination of yet-to-be-funded state, city and commission grants that would not be available until July, 1989. Commerce, using city redevelopment money, could have its station operating by the end of 1988, Ramirez said.
"It's by no means certain that Norwalk will prevail," said Carl Schiermeyer, a transportation consultant who wrote Norwalk's station proposal. "But we're quite encouraged by the fact that the commission was so confused about which way to go that they put it off for a month."
The commission voted 7 to 4 to grant the delay after lobbying by Schiermeyer and Norwalk Councilman Robert White, a commission alternate who voted that day in the absence of Councilwoman Chris Reed of Santa Monica. Norwalk also presented letters of endorsement from the cities of Whittier and Santa Fe Springs and is seeking support from other cities.
"Knowing I was going to be there and how political this thing is, I went in early and saw some people on the commission and was able to bring it up," White said. "I've been around 20 years and I know a few people and was able to tell them, 'Give us a little more time.' "
Tom Hageman, Schabarum's chief assistant deputy, said the supervisor and other commission members were swayed by Norwalk's location.
The Commerce site, which is not in Schabarum's district, would be eight miles from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. The Norwalk site is 18 miles from downtown and eight miles from the Fullerton station.
"If it's a better location and the funding can be put together, then why not consider Norwalk?" Hageman said. But he added, "They aren't going to get any more extensions. They're going to have to come up with a good show and that's it."
The "show" will consist largely of trying to convince the commission that Norwalk can come up with the $1.7 million to build the station earmarked for southeast Los Angeles County. The station, an addition to Amtrak's Los Angeles-San Diego route, will have two daily stops in each direction during non-rush hours.
Norwalk's station proposal includes $1 million from state transportation funds, $550,000 from the commission for track work and about $200,000 in city money, Schiermeyer said.
However, Norwalk could not even apply for the state money until September and the commission has said from the start it is unwilling to pay for the project, Johnson said.
"The commission staff had one major concern--that whichever station was funded would be funded with somebody else's money," Schiermeyer said. "Because they were skeptical of our financing plans, they were fearful that if they selected Norwalk and their worst dreams came true, the commission would have to provide some commission money."
But when asked if Norwalk was prepared to pay for the station if the state and commission funding fell through, Schiermeyer said, "At this point, we are not prepared to guarantee that."
Norwalk's funding proposal hinges on $1 million from the intermodal division of the state Transit Capital Improvement program, which has funded the construction of several California Amtrak stations, Schiermeyer said. However, Norwalk cannot apply to the intermodal program until September and would not be notified about the funding until July, 1989.
"If (Norwalk) didn't get it, it would be a whole year wasted," Johnson said.
Commission members are scheduled to visit both proposed sites March 3 and vote again March 9. In the meantime, Schiermeyer is simplifying Norwalk's financial plan to avoid having to depend on federal money and working on a study he hopes will show that Norwalk can attract more Amtrak riders than Commerce.
Ramirez said Commerce has no plans to lobby for the support of neighboring cities or change its station proposal.
"I think we should go back to the merits of the proposal," Ramirez said. "We're going to follow the ground rules . . . and I would like to see Norwalk at the meeting with the $1.5 million they promised."