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Projects to Lure Rail Riders Get on Track

Cities are experimenting with ways to attract commuters. Being able to shop or drop off your child for day care are some of the lures. But some experts are wary.


Each weekday morning, while the majority of Los Angeles area residents crawl along auto-choked freeways, Anjanette Wells has discovered a commute that makes up in convenience what it may lack in style.

No longer does she drive like a caffeinated madwoman to deposit her son, Julius, at a day-care center before launching herself down the freeway on the final leg of her commute to her job at a Burbank hospital.

Instead, the Canyon Country health worker has substituted civility for sweaty palms. She pulls her car into the Sylmar Metrolink station, drops her 2-year-old off at the privately operated day-care facility and boards the train for the short trip to Burbank.

Her life somewhat simplified, she lacks only one thing: stores where she could do her shopping after getting off the train. Although they may not be there now, they will be soon if some local governments have their way.

The stations of Metrolink, the sprawling 404-mile rail network connecting downtown Los Angeles with suburban areas in six Southern California counties, could be on the verge of a transformation.

"Big parking lots with railroad tracks running through them," as one transit official puts it, would become transportation's equivalent of a village green and shopping mall with commuting connections, a town center with easy access to government services, housing and retail stores.

"Thirty years ago business and residents located adjacent to freeways," said Metrolink spokesman Peter G. Hidalgo. "Now, we are finally seeing public policy being reshaped to offer incentives to locate business and residential developments next to stations and along rail lines."

"If you have a successful rail line, people want to do things near it," said Metrolink board Chairwoman Sarah Catz. "We would like to have at least one livable community [rail center] in at least every [Southern California] county [with Metrolink].

Metrolink, which only operates the trains, is trying to encourage the communities that own its stations to embark on such a strategy, the officials said.

They have some strong cards to play, even in the land of one car, one commuter.

Metrolink has 45 stations with at least a dozen more planned to open in the next few years. Ridership is ahead of projection, averaging 23,000 to 25,000 daily, Hidalgo said.

What's more, cities running some of the larger rail hubs--including Burbank, Chatsworth, Glendale, Irvine-Fullerton, Montclair in San Bernardino County, Santa Clarita, Sylmar-San Fernando, Riverside, and Simi Valley--are showing a greater willingness to experiment with creative ways to lure commuters.

Some of the more recent projects include:

* Day-care facilities at the Chatsworth, Montclair and Sylmar-San Fernando stations.

* Plans to locate the new Santa Clarita City Hall next to the commuter rail stop.

* A new multiplex cinema complex at the Riverside downtown station with plans for a larger, adjacent entertainment facility.

* Plans by several Orange County cities to develop upscale rail depots with restaurants and shopping.

Yet, despite apparent progress, experts warn, basing long-term financial gambles on the prospect that commuters will change their lifestyles could be risky.

On the surface, there's no reason why suburbs should not develop activity centers around transportation, said Martin Wachs , a public policy professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in transit issues.

But the question is "how much it's costing and where is the money coming from?" he said. If transit subsidies that could be used to extend bus service in the inner city are going instead to develop suburban child care centers or other facilities at suburban stations, "it would be hard to justify," Wachs said.

Catz disagrees. "We're talking apples and oranges," she said. Funding "comes from redevelopment money, developer funds and sometimes the retailers themselves. Joint land-use projects don't take away from transportation dollars," she said. "It puts them back into the community."

Still, academic experts wonder if these projects will significantly alter commuting habits. Recent data from a study by Berkeley graduate students, Wachs said, indicated that few people switched from cars to rail commuting because of access to a child care facility.

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