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Romance of the Rails Blooms

May Be Right on Time


VENTURA-S.B. COMMUTER RAIL: I believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and that the Rams will someday return to L.A., but I never thought we’d have commuter rail service to Ventura in my lifetime.

It’s been just a pipe dream at City Hall for years because Union Pacific (UP), which owns the tracks, has said no 10 ways to Sunday. A morning train bringing Venturans to South Coast jobs and taking them back after work would interfere with freight hauling, and that’s UP’s bread and butter, rail honchos insisted.

Barney Brantingham

But now, thanks to the perseverance of folks who want to ease the daily rush-hour, freeway-clogging mess on Highway 101, UP has changed its tune. In fact, there could be a train on the tracks in a year, predicts Gregg Hart, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG). The schedule would accommodate an 8 a.m.- 5 p.m. workday, Hart said. The round-trip fare would be close to the current commuter-bus fare, about $4 or $5, Hart said.

Union Pacific finally did a computer modeling test, and lo and behold, the scheduling problem vanished like the contents of a bottle of good Scotch in a crowded club car.

What makes the rail commute especially appealing for the estimated 20,000 people who now make the daily drive is an $85-million, six-laning project on Highway 101 along the Rincon starting in April. Three years of work will tear up the freeway between Mussel Shoals and Carpinteria Creek. Then major construction along the Ventura–Santa Barbara corridor to Hot Springs Road in Montecito will wreak hell on wheels for a dozen more years or so, until about 2027.

And while UP holds all the cards because it owns the tracks, SBCAG has bargaining chips in the form of $25 million from 2008 Measure A transit bonds. About all that stands between a single morning train leaving Montalvo in eastern Ventura County, stopping in Santa Barbara, then at the Goleta Business Center, and returning at the end of the afternoon, is what access fee UP will charge to use its rails. That’s a big unknown.

There’s a “significant” gap between what SBCAG is proposing and what UP wants, but negotiations are underway. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” Hart told me.

“I’ve been working on this for six years, and this is the closest we’ve come to real progress,” said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider. “For years we’ve been talking to UP and getting nowhere.” Now, she said, “It’s promising.”

Metrolink, the Southern California passenger rail system that connects to Ventura County, is open to leasing equipment and operating the single daily roundtrip, Hart said. SBCAG is working on getting approvals for a rail platform at the Goleta Business Center, where the train will wait during the day for the late-afternoon return trip. Santa Barbara’s MTD bus system is enthusiastic about providing shuttle service, Mayor Helene Schneider told me.

SBCAG is drumming up community support to seek $7.2 million in state funds to build the Goleta platform between Storke Road and Los Carneros Road, replace older sections of rail at the Santa Barbara Amtrak station, and do other work. New sidings will also be needed for the three-year pilot project.

For its part, UP is taking the opportunity to bring up what it sees as difficulties getting permits for rail improvements in Santa Barbara County. Nice to have everyone talking, right?

REAGAN’S CHOPPER: When Ronald Reagan was president, the Santa Barbara Police Department had Plan 2000 in effect, just in case. If the president had a heart attack or other health emergency while at his Refugio mountaintop ranch and had to be choppered out, Plan 2000 called for every officer, and I mean every officer, to rush to Cottage Hospital, a former officer recalled. The then-vacant lot across from the emergency room was set aside as a landing zone. No such emergency ever occurred, fortunately. Now Cottage Hospital has a new rooftop chopper landing platform awaiting the official okay.

WHO’S GOLDBERG? Listening to the Camerata Pacifica’s rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I got to wondering who Goldberg was. According to legend, which may even be true, Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk (or Kaiserling) visited Bach with a young composer named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The count, who had an insomnia problem, asked Bach for some music for Goldberg to play him to sleep. The now-famous Variations resulted. Or so they say.

FRENCH TWIST: French-born Californian Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a young pianist who seems to be everywhere — stage, TV, movie soundtracks, and recently in numerous concert venues with the Camerata Pacifica — will be playing Liszt with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Granada on Thursday, January 26.

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