Though still a far cry from the commuter rail promised nearly 10 years ago, it now appears Amtrak will soon change its train schedule so that Ventura County residents can arrive to jobs in Santa Barbara by 8 in the morning and leave for home at 5 in the evening.
Currently, the first northbound Pacific Surfliner arrives in Santa Barbara around 10 a.m. and heads back south around 4 p.m. But with the new arrival and departure times, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson predicted as many as 500 riders a day could make the journey by rail. That’s the equivalent of half-a-lane of traffic.
For years, it appeared a commuter rail was dead in the water. It was Jackson, who chairs the Select Committee on Passenger Rail, who applied the political squeeze necessary to break the impasse. Governor Jerry Brown, Jackson explained, needed support for his highly ambitious multibillion-dollar high-speed-rail initiative. Jackson — who previously sat on the budget committee overseeing rail, transportation, and cap-and-trade policies — was in a position to help. In exchange, she secured support from high places.
In 2004-05, Santa Barbara officials first embraced what’s known as “the lane-and-the train” initiative, a delicately orchestrated deal in which freeway-widening advocates and commuter-rail champions agreed to hold their noses and support each other’s pet projects. This would be memorialized by voters countywide in 2008 with the passage of Measure A, the half-cent sales tax used to fund the freeway widening and a host of other transportation projects.
But efforts since then to develop a commuter rail have gone nowhere. Union Pacific, the company that owns the tracks, has declined to be a meaningful participant in such discussions. The price the company demanded for use of the tracks was prohibitively expensive. In addition, Union Pacific insisted that freight shipments had to take priority over commuter scheduling.
Under the proposal Jackson is hammering out, Union Pacific’s consent was bypassed because Amtrak and the other entities involved had already secured a time slot on the tracks. Amtrak, Jackson said, was persuaded to participate because the Governor’s Office provided studies demonstrating that the Surfliner would experience an increase in both riders and revenues by retiming. To do that for just one early-morning train, she explained, would not displace any Union Pacific freight lines. But to add any additional trains, Jackson cautioned, would require the active cooperation of Union Pacific.
While many train advocates have despaired of ever getting phone calls returned by Union Pacific, Jackson said she was optimistic. With the Governor’s Office involved, she said, that helps even the playing field. In addition, there’s real money involved. In response to climate change, the State Legislature approved a program that caps the volume of greenhouse-gas emissions that can be released annually and then auctions off permits for excess emissions. Last year, that auction generated just under $1 billion. Of that, a large chunk has been earmarked to pay for the high-speed-rail plan. Conventional rail lines — like the one linking San Diego to San Francisco — are slated to receive 10 percent. But until any of that comes to pass, Jackson said, “We have to be careful not to call it a commuter train. Instead, they will be run during ‘commuter hours.’”
In the high-stakes, take-no-prisoners world of transportation politics, such distinctions are anything but academic. For supporters of the freeway-widening project, Jackson’s announcement constitutes proof-positive that the deal was and remains legit. “It’s a very big deal,” gushed Gregg Hart, who is not just a Santa Barbara City Councilmember but also the chief political spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) in its quest to widen 11 miles of freeway between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.
Leading the lawsuit challenging the legal validity of the environmental review for that widening project is attorney Marc Chytilo, who was notably less enthusiastic. The rabbit Jackson is pulling out of her hat, he argued, in no way resembles the promise for genuine commuter rail, and he questioned SBCAG’s commitment to keeping its word. “We should not plan infrastructure based on moving cars around. We need to implement more services focused on moving people around,” stated Chytilo’s client, Michael Gibian of the Transportation Futures Committee. Longtime commuter-rail advocate Dennis Story praised Jackson for making anything happen, adding, “People have to be weary of the machinations involving 101. Rail is like a breath of fresh air.”
Jackson remains hopeful that the new service could begin as soon as next April. “If you live in Ventura, you can grab the train, sit at a nice big table where they have Wi-Fi, look out the window or get some work done, and even buy a latte,” she exclaimed. “And in 45 minutes to an hour, you’ll be at work.”