Savvy rail advocates are far too familiar with the daunting complications to achieving rail improvements. This is a status report about one such effort that is making progress despite the hurdles often encountered in rail advocacy.
Sometimes, as in this case, the impetus behind a rail proposal is geographic. Santa Barbara, a picturesque coastal community north of Los Angeles, is hemmed in by mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. As a result, the space available for housing is limited and often unaffordable. Many who work in Santa Barbara live to the south in Ventura County, which is about 30-40 miles away. They commute to their jobs on the 101 freeway, which is the only road connecting the two areas and understandably is highly congested during peak commute times.
The 101 corridor is paralleled by the rail right-of-way owned by the Union Pacific and used by two Amtrak routes, the intercity Pacific Surfliner (which operates five daily round trips between San Diego and Santa Barbara, with two extending to San Luis Obispo) and long-distance Coast Starlight route (which operates one daily round trip between Los Angeles and Seattle). Logically, interest arose among residents in the affected areas to seek a rail option for weekday commuting between Ventura County and Santa Barbara.
In the early part of the last decade, a planning effort was undertaken to address congestion along the corridor under the aegis of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), a regional planning agency. Extensive outreach to stakeholders was made by 101 in Motion for more than two years. Through the efforts of advocates like Dennis Story of Coastal Rail Now, the final recommendations approved by the SBCAG Board in October 2005 included commuter rail.
The 101 in Motion effort was the basis for the project list in Measure A, the Santa Barbara County transportation sales tax passed in 2008. It allocated $25 million (over 30 years) for commuter and passenger rail planning and service improvements. The rail portion of the $1 billion Measure A program is overseen by Scott Spaulding, Principal Transportation Planner at the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG).
Per the Measure A website, “Eligible expenditures are capital and operating costs including developing new schedules and service plans, obtaining environmental clearances, negotiating agreements, operating subsidies, rolling stock and related equipment, promotions and marketing, maintenance, connecting transit service, track improvements, station facilities, train and grade crossing controls.” Initial efforts have focused on adjusting the Surfliner’s schedule to make it convenient for the use of commuters between Ventura County and Santa Barbara and other communities in Santa Barbara County (including Goleta and Carpinteria) with hopes of eventually augmenting this at a later time with dedicated commuter train service.
A change in the Surfliner schedule involves cooperation from Metrolink, whose commuter service in Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties uses the same rail right-of-way as the Surfliner, and right-of-way owner Union Pacific, which operates freight service throughout California and the western United States. Slots in the busy coastal rail corridor served by both Amtrak, Metrolink, the Coaster (in San Diego County), and freight railroads are at a premium. Negotiations are underway among the key entities — Union Pacific, Metrolink, Amtrak, the California Deptartment of Transportation, the Ventura County Transportation Commission, and SBCAG — to work out a plan to make the schedule change a reality. The joint powers authority, the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor (LOSSAN) Agency, which previously just advocated for better service but now also directly manages the Pacific Surfliner, is a central party in these talks.
An extensive and growing list of stakeholder organizations and elected officials are providing leadership to the effort. Dennis Story has for years tirelessly worked to build this coalition along with putting on an annual event tied to National Train Day with a demonstration round-trip train ride between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria along with a press conference attended by key elected officials supporting the proposal.
Regarding the project and its status, Supervisor Salud Carbajal made the following statement: “Creating a rail option for commuters traveling from Ventura to their jobs in Goleta and Santa Barbara is critical to our longterm plan to reduce congestion on the 101 freeway.” He also said, “We’ve been working for a long time to establish peak hour rail service between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. With regional control of the Pacific Surfliner service, we should be able to push this across the goal line.”
This spring had been mentioned as a possible start date, but it’s looking like later this year is more realistic. Despite setbacks, skepticism expressed by some, and institutional challenges, the effort has been slowly making progress toward the day in the hopefully not too distant future when a rail option will be not simply a dream but a reality. The tenacity of the activists whose vision and passion has been the foundation to the progress to date deserves high praise.
Dana Gabbard is a RUN Board member and executive secretary of Southern California Transit Advocates.
To give an idea of the multitude of activists and agencies involved, my thanks go to Dennis Story of Coastal Rail Now, Scott Spaulding of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, Scott Johnson of Metrolink, Lisa Valencia and Eric Friedman of the office of Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, Paul Dyson of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada, and Jennifer L Bergener of the Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor Agency for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this piece.
The stakeholders include: Rail Passengers Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC), Coalition for Sustainable Transportation (COAST), Alliance for Sustainable and Equitable Regional Transportation (ASERT), and Coastal Rail Now (CRN). The officials include: State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Passenger Rail; State Assemblymember Das Williams; 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who also is a LOSSAN Board member; Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider; Santa Barbara Councilman Gregg Hart; and Goleta Councilmembers Paula Perotte and Michael Bennett.