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LIFE ON WHEELS

Will Monorail Go to Tomorrowland? If You Wish Upon a Star

December 01, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

By 9 o'clock Tuesday night, just about everybody in attendance at the Irvine Transportation Commission meeting was getting a bit fidgety.

After 2 hours of discussion about such mundane matters as on- and off-site parking and the advisability of dual right-turn lanes in a business complex, city officials and audience alike were stifling yawns and squirming in their seats.

Then Jiminy Cricket started to sing, and the whole room came to life.

"When you wish upon a star," warbled the world's best-known conscience from somewhere within a video monitor, "makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you."

Survey after survey has shown that what Orange County's heart desires is a way out of our nearly perpetual traffic jam. Not coincidentally, whooshing across the screen as the cricket chirped was a vehicle that one famous local entrepreneur proposed as a solution long before we had a problem: the Disneyland monorail.

"Thirty years ago, amid the bountiful citrus groves of Orange County, a visionary imagineer named Walt Disney saw the future of transportation and gave it life," intoned the video's narrator as Jiminy faded into the background.

"He created North America's first monorail, at Disneyland. Today, Orange County once again stands at the threshold of an exciting new advancement in transportation technology. A new generation of imagineers from private industry will focus global attention on . . . John Wayne Airport. It's there that McDonnell Douglas Realty Co. will build and operate North America's first public monorail system."

In some ways, the McDonnell Douglas Realty project does sound like what the cricket would call a dream come true. "Developed entirely without cost to the taxpayers . . . effortless, safe, virtually silent, pollution free, at the leading edge of technology," the prerecorded pitch goes on, concluding with a direct appeal to whatever government authorities happen to be watching:

"It's a choice between the present and the future, and the choice is yours. Progressive government leadership working closely with the private sector at no cost to the taxpayers will make Orange County an even better place to live, work and travel."

But wait. Don't start lining up for a ride just yet. This monorail, which has yet to receive final approval, will only carry you 2,400 feet--less than half a mile, and a mere fraction of the 27-year-old Disneyland system's 2.5-mile loop. Its three-section cars are also teeny by comparison. And slow: At a top speed of 30 m.p.h., they will shuttle a maximum of 60 passengers at a time from the airport's new terminal across the street to Douglas Plaza and back. That's it. Handy for the 5,000 to 6,000 folks who will eventually live and/or work at Douglas Plaza, but probably not a major life-style enhancement for the rest of us.

Still, the mini-monorail has drawn an inordinate amount of public attention because of the possibilities it represents. This week the Orange County Transportation Commission decided to take a serious look at linking the system to the new Irvine Amtrak station, an idea that had already occurred to the city. And there is talk of eventually extending the line to Newport Center, South Coast Plaza and elsewhere in the county, maybe even tying in to a full-size monorail more like the Disneyland loop itself.

But is a monorail a realistic possibility? Or is it merely part of a Tomorrowland that will never happen?

Brian Pearson of the Orange County Transit District says, in effect, forget it--at least for now. "There's clearly a fascination with the idea of the monorail," he says, "but there is no monorail vehicle now on the market that is suitable for an urban transit environment." Besides which, he says, the monorail is "slow and antiquated compared to a more modern rapid-transit vehicle."

But the president of the company that designed the airport system is a believer--albeit a recent convert--in monorails of all sizes, and he says the idea is realistic.

"People have always wondered, after going to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, why we couldn't use a monorail," says Thomas J. Stone, president of the Transportation Group Inc., the company behind the proposed mini-monorail. TGI also holds the license for the extensive monorail system at Walt Disney World, a far more advanced system than Disneyland's.

Stone, a veteran transportation consultant, says he wondered the same thing. But until about a year ago, he says, "I used to just dismiss it without even looking at it seriously."

Monorails have long had two serious drawbacks, although the Disney folks haven't been wont to mention them. For one thing, there was no way to switch a train from one track to another, which limited the range of a system. For another, there was no easy way to evacuate passengers in the event of a breakdown or other emergency.

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