To kick-start the new morning service, train commuters between Ventura and Santa Barbara ride free in April.
Paul Wellman

Every once in a while, sanity strikes. When this happens, it appears as a great mystery. We reject obvious explanations. We refuse to believe it.

Such was my reaction to news that Santa Barbara will have a decent imitation of commuter rail service within two weeks. Working commuters from Los Angeles, Ventura, and Carpinteria will now be able to grab an early-morning train into Santa Barbara and Goleta and arrive in time to get to work. Under the new scheme, they will arrive in Santa Barbara at 6:47 a.m. and Goleta at 7:16 a.m. Right now, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner pulls into Santa Barbara at 10:19 a.m., a time convenient only for members of the leisure class.

This qualifies as a stop-the-presses moment. Moses should have risen from the grave to re-part the Red Sea. For the last 20 years, alternative-transportation wonks have been fighting for this very thing. And in Sacramento, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson has been pounding the hammer. But weirdly, word of this breakthrough only drooled out late last month at a meeting convened by a government agency so obscure not even its employees know what its initials mean. Lucky for us, one of our wonkier reporters showed up.

Beginning April 2, Amtrak will offer its new rise-and-shine commuter-friendly service to up to 500 northbound passengers. That’s the equivalent of about half a lane of freeway traffic. The trip from Ventura will be a 35-minute aggravation-free train ride. Better yet, the price is right. Ten rides will cost $50; monthly passes will cost $150. Translated, that’s $5 a day. Contrast that with the $15 the average Ventura car commuter spends ​— ​when factoring in gas, insurance, repairs, monthly payments, parking, and tickets. At $3, the bus is cheaper. But buses are still vulnerable to vexations of gridlock. Commuters who take the Coastal Express bus service can expect to spend 60-90 minutes making the 30-mile trip.

For bus passengers and those driving on their own, commute times jumped to as much as two hours following the debris flow that blocked off Highway 101 for two weeks. That’s improved recently, but Highway 192 ​— ​everyone’s favorite scenic safety valve ​— ​remains blocked off for the indefinite future for bridge replacement and bridge repairs. That puts more cars on the 101. More congestion. More time.

So what happened?

Twenty years ago, South Coast politicos adopted the mantra of “A lane and a train,” a catchy slogan that successfully harnessed the violently opposing political energies of train advocates and freeway wideners into the same political yoke. If either wanted money for their pet projects, they’d have to hold their noses, join forces, and work together to pass Measure A, the 2008 half-cent sales tax surcharge. It passed with flying colors. The $25 million Measure A set aside for rail service ​— ​a drop in the bucket compared to the $140 million for freeway widening ​— ​wasn’t enough to pay for new trains. It was enough, however, to pay for Amtrak to retime the arrival for trains already operating on Union Pacific’s coastal tracks.

For years, Union Pacific simply refused to engage. Omnipotent, arrogant, and inaccessible, the rail giant blew off then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’d invited company execs into his infamous cigar tent for a few friendly puffs. They’d been around long before California was a state, they told the gubernator, and they’d be around long after he was gone. And they are. But first UP wasted their time and money dreaming about gambling trains between L.A. and Vegas. Then that went bust. Next they threatened Santa Barbara politicos, telling them they’d have to support Phillips 66’s proposed oil train — a mile-long Molotov cocktail on wheels — if they wanted any serious face time. That project is now dead — killed by environmental opposition, mercifully for us all. Then, at last, the Red Sea parted. UP brought in new regional leadership, and big changes began to happen.

In the meantime, seven regional transportation agencies with serious skin in the game had to figure out if it was physically possible to accommodate Santa Barbara’s needs without inconveniencing commuters elsewhere up and down the tracks. For years, we were told it wasn’t. One politico who saw a proposed retiming map described it as looking like an art piece made out of “lots of nails and string.” Another said it resembled “a Rubik’s Cube trying to have sex with a Gordian knot.”

Beating everyone over the head to force the issue was State Senator Jackson. As a girl, Jackson grew up in Boston, where her father took the train to work. Trains were not a pipe dream conjured by crazy people. So if Jackson had to drive a few people crazy to get them to focus, she was not shy about doing it. And if Governor Jerry Brown wanted money for his cherished $77 billion 220-mile-an-hour bullet train — “a new train going to nowhere,” Jackson called it — she was not shy about letting him know he needed her vote. She made it equally clear she needed something in return. And she got it. As a result, Jackson, along with members of her staff, have spent the past three years meeting, conferring, and strategizing with everyone from California State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly on down.

Initially experts estimated that if 200 people signed up, that would be a screaming success. Guess what? Already more than 1,100 have, and every day brings another 30-40.

It’s so obvious. Trains make sense. Mystery solved.

Editor’s Note: The full Poodle was restored on March 26. Part of the second half went accidentally missing.


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