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Train Advocate Rewarded, at Last

Dennis Story Kept the Commuter Train Idea Alive

Train advocate Dennis Story (right) received kudos, from COAST's Alex Pujo (center) and Congressmember Salud Carbajal, among others, for productively applying pressure for the new morning commuter train over the decades.

It was 10 years late into the station, joked Eva Inbar, but the new morning train was largely due to Dennis Story, who received the 2018 Barry Siegel award for his “passion and conviction” in making a train for commuters finally arrive. Story was instrumental in getting $25 million of 2008’s Measure A monies to be put toward a train — it had fierce competition from advocates for a lane at Highway 101, which got $140 million — through sheer persistence and the help of then-supervisor Salud Carbajal, said Inbar, a founder of COAST (Coalition for Sustainable Transportation), which presented Story with the award on October 18.

As a boy, Story had grown up with trolleys and electric buses in Portland, Oregon. He also watched them dwindle away to nothing and then have their current renaissance. He said the experience laid out for him the “machinations of the powers at play” and that “roads ruled the day.” It took a coalition of about 27 nonprofit organizations to push Measure A to success, Story said, but the train portion of it had dwindled from $126 million in its previous incarnation as Measure D, to $15 million when it got to a crucial “lane and train” meeting led by Carbajal. Story held firm during the meeting that $15 million was not acceptable, and the supervisor carved out another $10 million from other programs on the table, Story described.

During the intervening decade, Story kept the issue alive by holding an annual National Train Day as a board member with RailPAC (Rail Passenger Association of California), offering free rides for families and elected officials. For Santa Barbara, “the tipping point for the commuter train was when the 101 was closed [due to Montecito’s debris flow], and the only way south was the train,” Story said. Since starting up in April, the morning train has remained popular, with ridership now staying steady at 115-120 people daily, said Pacific Surfliner director Jennifer Bergener.

Double tracks in critical places and modern signaling equipment are needed to serve the four to six additional trains that are planned, said Inbar. And those things are dependent on the defeat of Proposition 6, she said, which seeks to eliminate the billions in transportation funding coming from Senate Bill 1’s gas tax. “Rail is the lowest-emission way to move the greatest number of people,” said Story, as a reminder of what’s at stake in furthering commuter rail. “The stress-free ride on the train past the gridlocked cars makes it a no-brainer for me,” he added. “That’s what keeps me going.”

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