The Santa Barbara City Council made an unequivocal policy statement Tuesday that commuter rail in Santa Barbara isn’t dead – just in hibernation. And its own quiet way, the council put other elected officials throughout the county on notice that there better some money – no matter how token – for commuter rail in the next incarnation of Measure D to go before county voters.
This comes in the face of many sobering setbacks suffered by commuter rail proponents, lead on the council by Helene Schneider, Grant House, and Roger Horton. In recent months, City officials have met with representatives from Union Pacific – which owns the railroad tracks – and officials from Ventura County – whose cooperation is essential for any commuter rail program to work.
Union Pacific told City officials in no uncertain terms that it was not interested in commuter rail and that its resources would be dedicated to expanding freight service on their limited tracks. Likewise, Ventura County officials have maintained they have far more pressing transit demands than those experienced by the thousands of Ventura residents who commute to and from their jobs in Santa Barbara every day. And even many Santa Barbara officials contend there’s just not enough money in the proposed Measure D – which will go before county voters next November – for freeway widening, street improvements, and commuter rail.
That’s because the next time Measure D goes before county voters, it will ask them to renew a half-percent sales tax surcharge that’s been in effect 20 years. Last year’s Measure D asked for an expansion of the tax to three-quarters of a percent, and was beaten in large measure because of opposition to commuter rail by North County voters, who regarded it as a south coast extravagance.
But commuter rail advocates have yet to fly the white flag. They insist that Measure D did as well as it did in the South Coast only because commuter rail played so prominent a role. (The measure needs a two-thirds super-majority to pass.)
On Tuesday, the council outlined seemingly innocuous objectives for commuter rail: Start out slowly, lobby Amtrak to improve the reliability of its service and then change the schedule to better accommodate the real work-a-day schedules of commuters making the trekking between Santa Barbara and Ventura. The plan follows then that whatever success that brings should be used as building block to bigger and better projects. But above all, the plan stresses that commuter rail should be kept alive as a bureaucratic planning concept for the day that fiscal and political realities catch up.
Horton, a stalwart supporter of commuter rail, noted that construction was slated to begin on three major expansions to Highway 101 beginning in 2008 and would continue unabated for the next 20 years. During this prolonged construction hell, he said, commuters would be desperate to find other ways into and out of Santa Barbara. “When these projects get underway, it’s going to be an absolute nightmare,” he said. Councilmember Iya Falcone asked several pointed questions that highlighted the unilateralism of Santa Barbara’s proposed approach. “Do we have any partners in this?” she asked, referring to Goleta, Carpinteria, or any other local governments. When she was met with elaboration and evasion, Falcone pressed again for an answer. The answer, it turned, was no, prompting Falcone to caution her colleagues about getting out too far ahead of agencies upon whose cooperation the success of any such venture absolutely depends. But even with such reservations, Falcone voted in support of the policy statement, explaining she took the train whenever and wherever she could. This prompted her council colleague Das Williams to point out teasingly that Falcone is deathly afraid to fly.
Williams then launched into a lengthy discourse on a series of small measures that might help move commuter rail forward. He noted that Union Pacific is looking for political support in its bid to win Coastal Commission approval to build a much-needed new siding that will allow trains moving in opposite directions along a single track line to pass each other. By helping out Union Pacific, he suggested, perhaps there could be some “quid pro quo.” In addition, he said that Ventura City Manager Rick Cole had suggested holding a transit summit with other government entities.
At the end, Horton suggested approving the plan “in principle.” This prompted councilmember Brian Barnwell to object that “in principal” seemed a little squishy, and that if the council was to make a statement, it should do so more boldly. (Barnwell, by the way, remains skeptical that commuter rail will ever become anything more than a well-intentioned pipe dream.) “In principal” was removed and the measure passed seven-to-nothing.