LOS ANGELES -- Orange County, Calif., transportaion leaders this week approved a $4.4 billion plan for an urban rail system that might entail bond issuance, but officials have not decided how to pay for it.

"Our job is to try and find a way to finance this," said James Kenan, director of finance and administration at the Orange County Transportation Authority. "We're still in the infant stages of this program, [and] it's too early to look at bonding."

The authority's board voted unanimously Monday in favor of the program and will award a $750,000 contract to an engineering firm to evaluate the plan. A fiscal analysis of the plan will be conducted this winter, Mr. Kenan predicted, adding that consultants will be hired to work on the financial study.

The ambitious 20-year program includes an expansion of commuter train service and a proposal to construct a modern urban rail system that would link Orange County to Los Angeles County's Metro Rail system. The first phase calls for a 47-mile, $2.2 billion elevated rail project that would link Irvine with Santa Ana, Anaheim, and several other cities.

Transit officials were cautios about discussing the rail plan because the proposal remains in its infant states.

"This proposal is a long-term framework, and how long it will take will depend on many things, including funds," said Brian Pearson, director of rail projects for the agency. At this point, he added, "we haven't made a decision whether or not to sell bonds."

The first phase may be completed in the next 10 years. Other elevated rail systems might not be constructed until after the year 2000.

The system is expected to total 17 trains in each direction and would link Orange County to Riverside and Los Angeles. Transportation commissions in both Los Angeles and Riverside Counties would have to approve these links. The plan also includes eight new commuter trains daily from Oceanside to Los Angeles and construction of four new train stations.

An extensive program of this nature will require billions of dollars in private and public funds, officials said.

"We're keeping all our options open -- we have a $4.4 billion program, and we have $330 million in the bank," Mr. Kenan said. "The only way to address a shortfall like that is to be very creative."

Possible financing sources may include state rail bond funds, local sales tax revenues that also might secure bond issuance by the transit agency, and creationof benefit assessment districts that would levy fees on private businesses along the rail corridor.

Orange County voters last year approved Measure M, which instituted a county-wide sales tax increase for highway and transit projects. The newly approved rail plan is the first step toward using Measure M funds for transit.

In February, the transit agency sold its first debt issuance secured by Measure M funds. The agency issued $50 million of sales tax revenue notes that financed carpool lanes and freeway extensions, Mr. Kenan said.

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