by Nick Welsh
Any notions that the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) might relocate its Chapala Street transit center to the railroad depot — in anticipation of the still hypothetical day when Santa Barbara might enjoy commuter rail service — were soundly squashed Tuesday afternoon during a joint meeting of the Santa Barbara City Council and MTD’s board of directors. Members of both agencies unanimously and enthusiastically affirmed their support for the transit center’s octagonal-shaped current digs, pointing out that downtown is the final destination for many bus riders, not merely a jumping-off point for other journeys.
Although all assembled seemed to be singing from the same page — voicing warm feelings about mixed use, affordable housing, and green building materials — there was a distinct difference in priorities voiced by members of the two agencies. Members of the MTD board stressed the importance of planning for regional transit needs many decades into the future. And as MTD boardmember Dick Weinberg pointed out, there’s not nearly enough room to meet MTD’s current needs at the downtown depot. “When we started service downtown, we had 12 buses. Now we have 90. And we’re still doing business out of the same cookie-cutter building,” he said. Because of this, buses get backed up behind one another, cannot get out on time, and make potential riders wait longer than they should. As the price of gas and the number of bus riders continue to increase, the functional demands placed on the depot will intensify. How much space will be left over to accommodate a mix of housing and commercial development — prospects embraced most vigorously by members of the City Council — once those basic transit functions are met, remains to be seen. Given the constraints on the 1.8-acre site, an economic consultant hired by City Hall has already concluded that it will be challenge enough to design any project that makes economic sense; more challenging still, he concluded, would be the inclusion of the multitude of desirable uses.