LOS ANGELES -- Four California cities located along the proposed 20-mile Alameda Corridor rail right-of-way want a mediator to resolve a dispute with the Port of Long Beach relating to the $1.84 billion corridor, a spokesman for the cities said yesterday.

The cities' desire to seek outside mediation follows a surprise announcement by the port last Thursday that it was immediately suspending its participation in the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority because of a lawsuit filed by the four cities.

"If a satisfactory resolution can be reached outside of court, then the cities would drop the lawsuit," said Michael Gagan, an attorney with Rose & Kindel, a Los Angeles and Sacramento law firm retained by Vernon, one of the four cities that filed the suit. The other plaintiffs are Compton, Lynwood, and South Gate.

"We're anxious to move forward quickly because the clock is ticking," Gagan said, referring to a Sept. 8 hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The suit was filed June 10.

In a brief interview Monday, Port of Long Beach executive director Steven R. Dillenbeck said the port would permanently pull out of the corridor infrastructure project if the cities do not drop the suit.

He declined to say whether he would soften his position, such as allowing a third-party negotiator to work toward a compromise with the cities.

A suggestion for outside mediation was made once before, in late July, and was rejected by a port attorney.

Since then, Dillenbeck has been putting pressure on the four cities, culminating last Thursday when he and Long Beach port commissioner David Hauser walked out of the transportation authority's monthly meeting.

"We are sitting across the table with joint venture partners, and they [the four cities] are suing us," Dillenbeck said. "We're not going to play that game with them."

The four cities are among 16 government entities, including the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, that serve on the transportation authority. The joint powers authority was formed to spearhead construction of the corridor, a proposed high-speed freight rail route between the ports' area and downtown Los Angeles.

The four cities are concerned that increasing the ports' operations before the corridor is completed could add to air pollution and traffic congestion. Representatives of the cities are meeting today -- for the second time this week -- to weigh their options, Gagan said yesterday.

"Maybe we're naive, but we think that with the Port of Long Beach exercising goodwill and reasonableness -- and our people doing the same thing -- a resolution is possible," Gagan said.

The suit focuses on an environmental report on planned expansion of Pier J shipping facilities in Long Beach, which the suit says fails to adequately assess ground transportation impacts in the surrounding area.

"We just don't think the [environmental report] meets legal requirements with respect to addressing mitigation measures," Gagan said. The cities are concerned that the corridor project might break ground, but later fall short of funds. That might force a downscaling of construction, and force the placement of rail lines at the surface level in the four cities rather than in more costly trenches.

Gagan said the four cities are not trying to kill the Alameda Corridor project. "They want it, and they want it now," he said.

The corridor reached a major milestone two weeks ago, when Union Pacific Railroad Co. agreed to use the corridor in return for the ports' purchase of the railroad's San Pedro branch. Union Pacific is one of three freight railroad carriers that have agreed to use the high-speed corridor.

But, the suit by the four cities emerged as the latest stumbling block.

"One of the problems has been that the four cities and the Port of Long Beach really haven't been brought together by a third party to thoroughly discuss the issues that divide them with a view toward a nonjudicial resolution," Gagan said.

If the Port of Long Beach permanently suspends its involvement with the corridor, it would be a major setback for the project.

The financing plan for the $1.84 billion project includes $200 million each from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, government commitments totaling $135 million, a $700 million federal grant, and $600 million of revenue bonds issued by the authority.

"Without the ability to expand and develop the port, we will not be able to retire the bonds needed for the corridor," Dillenbeck said.

Revenue bonds would be repaid by fees supported by the two ports, and also by corridor users, said James Preusch, treasurer of the Huntington Park, Calif.-based transportation authority, and chief financial officer for the Port of Los Angeles.

The project has been "braised and banged around, but it has not been derailed," Preusch said yesterday. "We're going to make this thing work."

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