A key committee of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission on Thursday delayed action on a recommendation by its own staff that the commission cut $200 million from the budget for the proposed Norwalk-to-El Segundo light rail line.
The cuts would kill plans to construct it as the nation's first fully automated, driverless trolley system.
The Rail Construction Committee's move came four days after staff members reported that the projected cost for the automated line had jumped to $651 million. A year ago, the cost had been put at $411 million.
The estimates were prepared by different outside consultants.
Committee members told their staff to go back to the drawing board and come up with more detailed information on the cost of constructing and operating the 20-mile line.
"From the little to the big, we have to look at it all," Jacki Bacharach, chairwoman of the committee, said after the meeting.
In May, 1988, the full transportation commission voted to build the automated system. Commission officials said the system would operate more frequent trains than a manually controlled system, thereby improving service for passengers.
Commissioners at the time expressed strong concerns about the system's high cost and its incompatibility with the Metro Rail line and the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach trolley. The latter will use manually controlled trains powered by overhead wires.
Bacharach conceded that the higher estimate could threaten construction of an automated line. And Mike Lewis, an alternate on the commission for Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, questioned whether an automated line should be built at all.
"We don't get anything from what I see for $200 million," Lewis said.
Nevertheless, Bacharach said she still supports an automated line. She said the new cost estimate could turn out to be exaggerated.
Her view was shared by commission member and Long Beach City Councilman Ray Grabinski, a staunch supporter of an automated line.
"The first budget estimate was just that," he said. "There weren't any tight figures. . . . I don't believe the difference is going to be $200 million. I believe it is going to be much smaller."
At Thursday's meeting, El Segundo mayor Carl Jacobson spoke in favor of the automated line. He said future development plans for the city have been predicated on an automated line.
Rights of way, grade separations and other elements could be different if the system were manually operated, according to some commission staff members and El Segundo officials.
Also present at the meeting were officials from the El Segundo Employers Assn., a coalition of local corporations. The group, which attended the meeting to show its support for a fully automated system, has successfully lobbied for transportation projects in the south Bay.
Donald Camph, the group's executive director, said one reason the association favors an automated line is so that trains would operate more frequently. Camph also contended that the original cost estimate for the project was meaningless because it was not based on detailed engineering work.
"To try to hold anyone to the original budget is an exercise that doesn't have any meaning," Camph said.