The Third Lane Is a Train

We Can Have Peak-Hour Rail Service Now

Traffic on the 101.
Paul Wellman

Like it or not, we have to face facts: We can’t afford the third lane, but we can afford commuter rail. Due to the recession, and a shortfall of tax revenue for infrastructure projects which are supposed to be funded by the new countywide transportation tax measure (Measure A 2008), we’re not likely to see the third lane for at least 20 years.

The widening project you see happening now (funded by Measure D) only adds the third lane from Milpas to Olive Mill Road. That’s 3.5 miles, leaving 12-plus miles that Measure A hopes to fund. The County is currently at work to figure out when and how those 12-plus miles can be delivered.

Currently, commuters at peak hours have no choice but to hit the road, whether by car or bus, and deal with what befalls them—be it gridlock, accidents, or weather—and the frustration of having no other option. Amtrak’s Surfliner currently arrives from the south at 10:12 a.m., too late for morning commuters, and the afternoon train heads south at 4:31 p.m., too early for most commuters. Efforts to retime these trains have been in process for some time, but for a viable commuter rail service, three trains each way are needed.

HSR (high speed rail) is much in the news, and brings $2.3 billion to California’s table (of the federal government’s $8 billion) for rail infrastructure improvements. The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments has applied for a piece of that. It’s a bit confusing, because HSR money is not exclusively for HSR, but also for upgrading rail corridors specified as HSR—which the coastal corridor is—for the time when they can become HSR. That means such things as new sidings, signals, and switching that will allow trains to move more efficiently. This will certainly help us reach the goal of commuter rail.

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was an American historian and philosopher of technology and science, whose observations came before the Highway Trust Fund was broken in 1991 with Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which began to level the transportation playing field. His feelings in the 1960’s went like this: “What kind of half-baked planning has deliberately broken down our efficient many sided transportation network, based on the pedestrian, the railroad, the motorbus, and the private motorcar, in favor of a space wasting, city destroying system of mono-transportation, based on the private motorcar alone?”

Have things gotten better? Not much, mainly due to the entrenched bureaucratic culture which is so strongly biased toward roads. For example: At a recent meeting, attended by county and state officials, of a group that deals with the coastal rail corridor, one state official connected to rail—who was not invited there to talk about cars and highways—spoke about the importance of the Highway Department since only two percent of Californians use rail! Does this sound like someone who would fight for more funding for passenger rail? We think not!

When it comes to Measure A 2008, widening Highway 101 received a full measure of funding ($140 million), and was voted to be a priority by the County Supervisors. On the other hand, commuter rail was cut 80 percent from the rail-study estimate, receiving only $25 million. This leaves the best hope in the near future for commuter rail to the re-timing of a couple of Amtrak trains. And judging by the tone of remarks by the rail official and others at that recent meeting, we shouldn’t hold our breath—but we won’t be silent.

You’ve heard a few words from Mumford, along with our thoughts and observations, so now let us paint you a picture of the future:

The county budget is in trouble, the state budget is in trouble, and we hear daily about the federal budget and its challenges. While the Federal Stimulus Package was to help improve our infrastructure (and SBCAG has applied for a share) it’s been slow in manifesting any of the jobs or projects as advertised. That includes projects required for Measure A’s commuter rail service.

It’s clear that the recession is having an effect on projected funding going forward. A couple of snippets from the staff report for the March 4 meeting of the Transportation Technical Advisory Committee (TTAC), where the Measure A Strategic Plan is being formulated, will give you a sense of the challenges:

* “The paradox of funding the highest priority project costing over $500 million (101 widening) with 22% of annual revenues so as not to interrupt an annual cash flow to local programs receiving 78% of annual revenue required that the . . . team examine seven cash flow scenarios….”

* “In Section 3 of the Investment Plan it states that a guiding principle used to develop Measure A is ‘Reducing traffic congestion, and improving safety on Highway 101 is our highest priority.’”

What’s being overlooked is the fact that the guiding principle “reducing traffic congestion” is not served by focusing an inordinate amount of resources and energy on “finding the money” for one long-term project, namely widening Highway 101.

We would like to see traffic congestion dealt with sooner than later, and it’s becoming clear that widening Highway 101 is not going to accomplish that any time soon. Not only that, but the decades of road construction to widen 101 will create more congestion.

Currently motorists on Highway 101 must traverse the chicane-like road layout south of Milpas, which borders on treacherous and definitely slows traffic.

On the other hand, the rail infrastructure is ready and waiting, and retiming the #799 and #798 Surfliner trains would bring the commuter rail option to the South Coast now.

Commuter rail is being used throughout the nation: Metrolink to the south, RailRunner in Albuquerque, and Tri-Met’s WES outside Portland, Oregon, are examples. Browse the Coastal Rail Now website to see details about these and other commuter rail services around the country.

The use of rail as mitigation for road construction’s added congestion on the 101, especially during commute times, was first suggested by Warren Weber, former head of Caltrans Rail Division. We continue to lobby for this as a way to help fund commuter rail. There is precedent: Rail as mitigation has been used in the Altamont Pass in Northern California to provide an alternative to driving during road construction. Political leadership is needed to go forward with this not out-of-the-box strategy.

It’s important to note that the 35th Assembly District election is coming up in June. This important regional office is currently held by Pedro Nava, a big supporter of commuter rail who has been termed out of office. Since the district covers parts of both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, it’s vital that candidates are queried about regional transportation and about how important it is for the South Coast Region to have peak-hour train service.

In closing, one and all are invited to join the celebration of Amtrak’s Third Annual National Train Day event at the Santa Barbara Train Station on May 8th. You’ll have the opportunity to ride the Surfliner to Carpinteria, and join celebrants from the Ventura area on the northbound #799 back to Santa Barbara. Departure south will be at 9:20 a.m., with return to Santa Barbara at 10:12 a.m. There’ll be a press conference where you can ask officials from both counties when we can expect to have peak-hour rail service. Wouldn’t it be great to get people to Santa Barbara without their cars? That’s a goal worth pursuing!

Roger Horton is a former Santa Barbara City Councilmember. Dennis Story is the chair of CoastalRailNow.


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