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As O.C. Balks, Riverside Rail Proposal in Peril

January 13, 2001|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A funding dispute between Orange and Riverside counties is threatening to doom a long-awaited commuter rail line that could provide relief to thousands of commuters who ply the clogged Riverside Freeway.

The proposed rail line, which was mapped out more than 10 years ago and has since languished, would run from Riverside to Los Angeles via Fullerton. Although Riverside transportation officials and commuters desire the rail connection, Orange County officials are balking at the expense.

Orange County officials believe the line would primarily benefit Riverside residents and that Orange County would get little in return for its share of the operation expense, estimated at $6 million to $8 million a year. Riverside officials say their counterparts are mistaken, that the rail line will pay heavy dividends in the future by connecting Riverside residents with a light rail line planned to travel through the heart of Orange County's business and tourism districts.

Metrolink officials are now asking the counties to come to a decision so the expense can be budgeted for a 2002 start date. If Orange County refuses to pay its share--roughly $1.8 million to $2.4 million a year--the route would likely be derailed.

"We're in a holding pattern at this point," said Francisco Oaxaca, Metrolink spokesman. "If Orange County decided that it won't pay, it would be up to Los Angeles and Riverside counties to make up the difference. That would be unprecedented."

The proposed route would use existing train tracks that parallel the Riverside Freeway. The route would greatly benefit Riverside County train riders, who currently have to choose between two messy and sometimes sluggish routes.

One route--the Riverside Line--runs through San Bernardino County and is slowed by competing freight train traffic. Delays along the Riverside Line occur 40% of the time and trains sometimes run as much as 90 minutes behind schedule, according to Metrolink.

The second option for Riverside-area residents is to take Metrolink to Orange, then board a second train to Los Angeles. Problems can occur during this transition as well, rail officials say.

Riverside officials contend the new line would help uncork traffic along the Riverside Freeway--the bustling conduit linking Riverside County residents and Orange County employers. "It certainly wouldn't solve problems on the freeway, but it does help some people," said John Standiford, spokesman for the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

But many officials at the Orange County Transportation Authority remain unswayed.

"Basically, Riverside wants to use our money to help with their commute," said George Urch, OCTA spokesman. "If we had tons of money that wouldn't be a problem. We only have a finite amount, though, and we need to use it to look out for Orange County's interests." Orange County commuters are already served by Metrolink's Orange County Line, which runs north from Oceanside to Los Angeles and stops in Fullerton.

OCTA officials have also faulted their Riverside counterparts for failing to offer exact figures for the expense of the line. Riverside officials say, in turn, that they are waiting for Metrolink to provide those numbers.

"We're still waiting to get numbers," Urch said. "We're perfectly willing to sit down and talk to them when they do, but I can't say we're going to be enthusiastic."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Direct to L.A.

Metrolink is proposing a direct Riverside to Los Angeles route through Fullerton. Commuters from West Riverside and Corona currently must endure lengthy delays traveling through San Bernardino or be routed through Orange to get to downtown Los Angeles.

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