As the promise of commuter rail closes in on the anticipated start-up date of April 2 — if all goes well — Santa Barbara has hosted several meetings to finalize “last mile” destination and subsidy arrangements. Up in her Sacramento state senator’s office, Hannah-Beth Jackson is enjoying some long-awaited rays of cheer.
“It did seem hopeless at times,” Jackson said of the years-long effort to bring a train to serve Santa Barbara commuters. For more than 20 years, she’d stared at railroad tracks sitting unused — “with one of the best views in California!” — while she fumed on the 101, stuck in traffic along with everyone else. The turning point was a state budget committee meeting.
“I sit on the subcommittee that reviews transportation funding,” Jackson said. It became clear that Governor Jerry Brown’s funding priority was high-speed rail while inter-city and commuter rail were being given “short shrift,” the senator said. “Until more equality was given on funding distribution,” she said, “I was not prepared to support additional high speed rail funding.” Then, after multiple meetings, “I extracted a promise from the administration to make this happen.”
In particular, Jackson got a promise that some of the funds from cap and trade — a greenhouse gas–carbon credit auction held by the state that brought in $2 billion in 2017 — would go to expand inter-city, commuter, and light-rail options. To keep the pressure on, Jackson held monthly meetings in her office with the seven other entities along the coast that “had some say and authority in the use of our rail lines, not to mention Union Pacific which owns the rails.”
She credited Brian Kelly of CalSTA (State Transportation Agency), who ironically has just moved over to run the high-speed rail project, with getting a commitment from Amtrak to change one of its Pacific Surfliner slots to an earlier commuter-friendly time. They found a set of train cars in Michigan that was clean and relatively new, carried wifi, and had a good café car; new cars are on a long waitlist. They located an overnight spot for that train — harder than it sounds. Union Pacific (UP), whose West Coast leadership had changed, was “surprisingly cooperative,” Jackson said, as they worked out a way the early timing would not interfere with UP’s freight traffic.
And ridership on the trains while the 101 was closed — “People were packed in like sardines,” Jackson recalled, “but it was still a really positive experience” — endorsed the argument that commuter interest was there. In fact, the Pacific Surfliner is one of the busiest routes in the United States, said Michael Bennett, a Goleta city councilmember and the county’s representative to LOSSAN (the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo rail authority). Aside from the highway closure ridership, which peaked at 5,335 riders when additional cars were added, the Pacific Surfliner also continues to grow in popularity, Bennett told the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) on Thursday.
Currently, the early train is to glide out of Los Angeles Union Station at 4:09 a.m., LOSSAN managing director Jennifer Bergener informed SBCAG’s rail subcommittee on Wednesday. It would arrive at Santa Barbara at 6:45 a.m. and at Goleta at 7:15 a.m., but the Ventura times were still uncertain, she said. The new time is replacing the current 7:03 a.m. out of Union Station, which arrives at Santa Barbara after 10 a.m. The return time remains the 4 or 6 o’clock trains. “We are closer than we’ve ever been,” Bergener told the subcommittee members, adding that the project was ongoing when she began to manage LOSSAN five years ago. One final approval was expected from Metrolink shortly, she added, and LOSSAN will meet about the retimed train next Wednesday.
The costs of the changes and the new train set were being offset by a $2.5 million infusion from the state and Measure A, Scott Spaulding of SBCAG reported. Exceeding the anticipated 100-200 riders on the Ventura-Santa Barbara leg would be a “great” showing, Spaulding said in answer to a question from subcommittee member Joan Hartmann, a county supervisor. In addition to the last-mile bus service confirmed at the meeting, an offer of free train travel in April should help kick start the new service, he added, as long as the Surfliner/LOSSAN board gives its approval.
Senator Jackson isn’t sitting on her laurels. She’s working now to get at least two evening trains to take people home again and to access parking at the Ventura Fairgrounds. And she’s confident commuters will discover the allure of train travel. “You can sit on the train, read your mail or the newspaper, and have a cup of java in the morning, or maybe a craft beer at night,” she said. “It’s an alternative to getting in the car and polluting the atmosphere.”
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected on March 5: Brian Kelly was with the State Transportation Agency, of which Caltrans is a part.