I HEAR A TRAIN A-COMING: Even in the act of celebration, Dennis Story gives off the mournful melancholy common to martyrs, people who tilt at windmills, and those who expect the sky to come crashing down. Story, for those who haven’t met him, is a high-octane variant of the genus “train nut.” But instead of looking nostalgically to the good old days when trains sang the song of “clickety-clack,” Story is squinting with brave — perhaps foolhardy — optimism into an uncertain and inhospitable future. Like anyone ensnared in the ever-expanding quicksand of traffic congestion, Story wondered why there’s no commuter rail service. With 20,000 people making the roundtrip from Ventura to Santa Barbara every day, he figured a commuter train linking the two cities was just too obvious for words. When he discovered that über-bureaucrats in charge of traffic infrastructure didn’t see it that way, Story didn’t just curse, mutter, and go away. Instead, he made a serious pest of himself. For the past eight years, in fact, he’s gone mano a mano with any and all government agencies — vast obscure bureaucracies — founded principally for, of, and by the automobile.
Over the years, Story fought first for a foot in the door, then a seat at the table. Now, the battle’s for a crust of bread. Given a constellation of recent developments, it appears this is one we might actually win. Within the next couple of years, in fact, there’s a real possibility that we could have a commuter rail pilot project in place, hauling up to 300 passengers a day from Ventura to Santa Barbara and back. Story didn’t make this happen. But as the proverbial thorn in the side, burr under the saddle, and knot in the underwear, he played a key role. In so doing, Story was forced to master the weird lingo of transportation planners, a dyslexic and bulimic dialect of alphabet soup. Such fluency has taken clearly a toll. Story, friends say, has come to “speak in tongues.” At last Saturday’s National Train Day celebration at the downtown depot, for example, Story slipped repeatedly into acronyms and jargon-speak, leaving the small crowd of young kids sporting cardboard train conductor hats — and their parents — utterly mystified. That’s OK. For the occasion, he also hired professional magician Mark Collier, who entertained the early morning crowd by converting $1 bills into $100 notes. Given the financial challenges still confronting commuter rail, such money-changing skills will prove indispensable.
Even in alt-transit circles, commuter rail has been regarded as something of a Holy Grail, intuitively obvious but politically impossible and financially infeasible: Nothing so imminently sensible could hope to be achieved. Two months ago, it appeared such pessimism was borne out by the facts. That’s when word was delivered from on high that Santa Barbara’s admittedly token scheme to make the Amtrak Surfliner commuter-friendly — by re-jigging its departure time from L.A. so that it would arrive in S.B. at 8 a.m. rather than 10:15 — wouldn’t work. For four years, this meager plan was it for commuter rail. But in the same breath, we heard that Metrolink, a vast commuter rail service linking Ventura to L.A., announced it was open to the idea of running a train from Montalvo in Ventura County to Goleta. Metrolink also announced it had a few trains it could sell to make this happen. That’s huge. In the past, Santa Barbara couldn’t get the time of day from Metrolink.
Even more encouraging, Union Pacific (UP), the forbidding railroad giant that owns the tracks, announced it was open to such conversations. This, too, is unprecedented. Traditionally, county transportation planners have had a better chance of getting the Pope on the phone than they could an assistant vice president with Union Pacific. UP hauls freight, not passengers, and has ruthlessly decapitated previous commuter rail entreaties with a monosyllabic “Nyet.” Now, on May 20, UP is poised to sign a $25,000 agreement with Santa Barbara to study the feasibility of allowing the Montalvo-to-Goleta train on its tracks. Add to the mix the arrival of legendary rail executive Gene Skoropowski, now a private consultant hired to figure out how best to maximize the stretch of tracks from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. Skoropowski may not be able to part the waters, but by all reckonings he massively expanded commuter rail between Sacramento and the Bay Area — achieving an unprecedented 95-percent on-time average. Not only does he know whom to call at UP; he gets his calls returned. Skoropowski doesn’t just believe the Montavo-to-Goleta connection is doable; he thinks it’s desirable.
To allow freight trains and passenger trains to coexist, traveling back and forth on a single stretch of track, requires the construction of two new railroad sidings, one by Ortega Ridge Road and another by Sea Cliff to the south. Normally, that would be a deal killer. But the County of Santa Barbara just won two federal grants — for $950,000 each — to do the engineering and environmental analysis required for these siding. And we’re in line to get $20 million more in train-related state grants (the money comes from gas-tax revenues) with which to actually build them. The competition for the federal grant money, it should be noted, has been blood-curdlingly intense. Santa Barbara prevailed only because it pledged to put $500,000 of its own skin in the game. It had that money to spare only because county voters approved Measure A — a sales-tax surcharge to fund a host of freeway-widening, road-repair, and alternative-transit schemes — back in 2008. And written explicitly into Measure A was a commitment to spend $25 million on commuter rail. That didn’t happen by accident. In fact, if county transportation moguls got their way, it would have been less than half that. At the time, Dennis Story — among others — objected. It wasn’t enough, he said. But unlike the others, Story wouldn’t shut up. He wouldn’t go away. If the amount weren’t increased, he said he’d oppose Measure A. Given the two-thirds super majority required for Measure A to pass, any opposition would have been fatal. To shut Dennis up, Measure A got $25 million.
Certainly, there’s ample opportunity to yank defeat from the jaws of victory; there’s still many a slip ’twixt the cup and lip. Dennis Story is still looking warily heavenward. But what he’s seeing is not necessarily pie in the sky. And for the time being, at least, there’s reason to think it won’t fall.