Less than a week after Barack Obama was sworn in, having pledged the wholesale greenification of the nation’s infrastructure, one-time Democratic presidential aspirant and former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis blew into Santa Barbara, preaching the virtues of commuter rail to a standing-room only choir of the already converted. Speaking with brisk passion and good humor, Dukakis exhorted the faithful, who assembled last Saturday, January 24, in the Faulkner Gallery of the downtown library, to “get cracking” and focus their political energies. The recession, he suggested, coupled with Obama’s green ambitions and proposed $825 billion economic stimulus package, offers commuter rail advocates the best opportunity they’ve had in years.
While some environmentalists grumble that the stimulus package does not earmark enough funds for alternative transit, Dukakis did not go there. The $17 billion for rail transit is a decent start, he said, along with the $30 billion for transportation generally. The real problem, he said, was that alternative transit planning lagged so far behind during George Bush’s administration that local and state governments aren’t prepared for the influx of federal funds. “We’re just not ready for the economic stimulus package,” he said.
Dukakis dismissed more freeway construction as embodying Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The city of Atlanta has expanded the main freeway running through its downtown from six lanes to 16 since he ran against George Bush senior in 1988, Dukakis said, but for all that, it remains nothing more than a massive parking lot during rush-hour traffic. A former Amtrak executive who now teaches public policy at UCLA, Dukakis contended that commuter rail capacity could be increased simply by adding rail cars-no land to acquire, no homes to condemn.
The good news is that “infrastructure” has become the new sexy buzzword, Dukakis said, something fully 94 percent of Americans believe government needs to invest in, according to a survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Americans have proved willing to tax themselves for commuter rail and other alt transit almost everywhere throughout the U.S., Dukakis claimed, with the exception of Kansas City, contradicting the stereotype that Americans refuse to get out of their cars. The Capital Corridor line connecting Sacramento with San Jose saw a 500-percent increase in passengers over the past seven years, he said, while the Blue Line from Los Angeles has made possible Long Beach’s economic rejuvenation.
Still, Dukakis expressed chagrin that Japan, China, and Europe are light years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to commuter rail. Japan had a high-speed train that hit 130 miles per hour back in 1964 and now reaches speeds of 190 mph. France boasts a train capable of 225 mph, and China, he exclaimed, is currently building a new high-speed rail line on which 110,000 people are employed. “I defy you to find even five people working at any one time on the expansion of the Highway 405 HOV [carpool] lane in Los Angeles,” he said.
Dukakis lambasted the slow speed and enormous expense with which American transit agencies lay track. Yet the capital costs, he said, are relatively cheap compared to commuter rail’s operating cost, which is never paid exclusively from passengers’ pockets. That, Dukakis said, is not unique to commuter rail. “There isn’t a mode of transportation that is not subsidized. Highways don’t make money. Airlines don’t make money. Just remember, the federal government spends $33 billion a year on highways, $16 billion for air travel, and $1.5 billion on rail transit,” he said. “That should tell you where our priorities have been the last 60 years.”
Unfunded operating costs have discouraged Santa Barbara government officials from actively pursuing commuter rail, and they have committed a relatively small amount-$25 million over the next 30 years-to it. (Other mass transit, by contrast, will receive $85 million, and freeway widening $140 million from the $1 billion to be generated by Santa Barbara County’s Measure A.) South Coast officials have embraced piecemeal steps, working with Amtrak to adjust its train schedules to better accommodate commuters.
Another impediment frustrating Santa Barbara commuter rail advocates has been the lack of approachability exhibited by Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the track. Union Pacific worries that increased passenger rail could interfere with its bread-and-butter freight operations. Lacking definite commitment from a money source, railroad officials have not been particularly talkative, prompting local officials to joke that it would be easier to get an audience with the Pope. Dukakis recommended contacting Eugene Skoropowski, executive of the highly successful Capitol Corridor service, which runs on Union Pacific track. At the request of County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, Dukakis said he would help enlist Skoropowski to assist.