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Not All Are Aboard O.C. Rail Line Proposal : Transit: $1-billion plan links Fullerton to Irvine with elevated 23-mile line. Critics say they're on wrong track.


New York has its storied subway, San Diego those spiffy red trolleys. But in Orange County, about the closest thing to an urban train line is the aging Disneyland monorail, which has whisked hordes of tourists on a serpentine path through the amusement park since 1959.

Now civic leaders are embarking on an ambitious, $1-billion effort to build an ultramodern, 23-mile rail system that will borrow a bit from Disney--and a lot from taxpayers.

Promoters envision sleek, high-tech trains that would ferry travelers from Irvine to Fullerton at up to 55 m.p.h. along elevated tracks above the traffic jams on city streets. A late-generation offshoot of the Magic Kingdom's tried-and-tested monorail is among the trains being considered.

But even as politicians and planners look to Tomorrowland for their rail inspiration, a chorus of critics around the nation insist that the idea of an elevated commuter rail line in Orange County is best left in Fantasyland.

From Miami to Portland, Ore., and in half a dozen cities in between, commuter rail projects during recent decades have by and large failed dismally, with ridership figures falling far below predictions and costs ballooning beyond expectations.

Orange County could easily join the list, skeptics say, perhaps even becoming the biggest flop of its kind in the nation. Though a light rail line would make a nice, glossy package for promotional brochures to lure tourists and conventioneers, the system just won't work, foes contend.

Backers say the intercity rail network, which they hope will eventually spread like well-watered ivy to all corners of the county, is needed to give commuters an alternative to the automobile. By providing drivers with an attractive option, urban rail could break their death-grip dependence on the car, which has cursed the county with traffic congestion and polluted skies.

Preliminary projections suggest the system's initial phase could eventually capture as many as 70,000 riders a day, or about 3% of the more than 2 million motorists expected on the county's highways within the next 20 years. Although the percentage seems small, transportation planners say it will slow the growth of freeway congestion even as commercial and residential development continues to sweep the region.

An elevated rail line could also help shape development patterns in Orange County well into the next century, altering the face of the region as office buildings and apartments sprout along the tracks, backers say.

"Traffic congestion on our roads and highways is beginning to affect our economy, to alter the ambience that lured people here," said Costa Mesa Councilman Peter F. Buffa, a staunch supporter of urban rail for Orange County. "If we're ever going to solve this problem, it's got to be with a mix of the automobile, buses and true urban mass transit systems."

Critics argue that with its sprawling suburbia and lack of a focal point for commerce, Orange County isn't suited for rail transit. Each morning, commuters head in every imaginable direction to employment centers scattered around the region. No single rail line can fill the myriad needs of those million motorists, critics say.

In the meantime, local politicians who invariably push hardest for the projects turn a blind eye to the severe deficiencies of urban rail, foes lament. The reasons for such myopia are many and varied.

Lawmakers commonly suffer from the "ribbon-cutting syndrome," the allure of championing a big-money rail project as a way to make their mark, critics say.

Meanwhile, the public and politicians alike share an abiding love of rail stemming from childhood days spent playing with toy trains. It's called the "Lionel complex," and Orange County certainly seems to be in its grip. A poll in 1990 showed that 81% of county residents believed that a rapid rail transit system would help relieve traffic congestion. Freeways garnered 62% support.

"People have a nostalgic fascination with rail," said Martin Wachs, a UCLA professor of urban planning. "A bus is a plain old box on wheels. Monorail, on the other hand, is sleek and fast and goes whoosh when it passes by. But studies have demonstrated that rail is generally not cost effective. It costs more to transport people than do simpler alternatives like buses."

Undeterred by such warnings, advocates of the Orange County urban rail project have barreled ahead, confident that their plans are an important step toward curing the traffic congestion that residents consistently rate as the No. 1 problem plaguing the region.

Monorails were first proposed as a solution as part of a special transportation tax that was defeated in 1984. Since the idea of an intercity system resurfaced in 1989, six cities--Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Irvine, Orange and Santa Ana--have united to spur development of the rail network. Several others, among them Brea and Huntington Beach, are clamoring to jump aboard.

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