Warren Buffett sees a future that most people will not “see” for many years to come. Always ahead of the curve, the legendary investor’s acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway says a lot about where transportation is going in the years to come. The slow-moving wheels of government are mired in the old ways of providing mobility, but will eventually learn what the future has in store. Slow-moving traffic and high gas prices will help the process along.

Dennis Story

Dennis Story

While Buffett see’s the beauty of the railroad system in terms of moving freight efficiently, moving people by rail provides the same cost effectiveness. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I found the easiest way to shuttle between hotels was on the Las Vegas Monorail. This technology first appeared at Disneyland in 1955, but has yet to be a major player in the country’s transportation infrastructure. While some see the Las Vegas Monorail as a boondoggle, watching people slowly traverse the area by automobile makes it an easy sell to me.

Getting to Las Vegas is another matter, and traveling across the desert by car you can often find yourself in a traffic jam where you wouldn’t expect it. It’s hard to believe there is not a train to Las Vegas from Los Angeles, but there was until 1997. It so happens that Union Pacific owns the tracks to Las Vegas, along with the coastal route through Santa Barbara. The company has no interest in facilitating the use of passenger trains on its tracks, but the recently retired head of the Capital Corridor rail service between Sacramento and the East Bay found a way. He pays UP a bonus if his trains are able to run over a certain percentage on time, say 92 percent to 93 percent. That’s a carrot UP can get its teeth into, and one that could be used elsewhere.

Politics will continue to drive transportation in this country, and in this county. While someone at Disneyland in 1955 would figure there would be a monorail up and down the coast by 2010, oil, rubber and auto companies created another reality. Currently, passenger rail transportation is in a squeeze between the freight railroads and reluctant government entities. When gas reaches $100 a barrel and beyond again, we will see “the beauty of rail” extolled by our “leaders.” And they will react to the “dilemma” with their heroic efforts to provide rail service for “the people,” and be lauded for their wonderful work.

In the meantime, COAST (Coalition for Sustainable Transportation), CoastalRailNow and ASERT (Alliance for Sustainable and Equitable Regional Transportation) will continue to advocate for common sense in transportation until common sense happens. Santa Barbara County approved Measure A 2008, which includes $25 million for commuter rail service between Santa Barbara and Ventura. It’s time for this to become a reality.

— Dennis Story is chairman of CoastalRailNow and a member of ASERT (Alliance for Sustainable and Equitable Regional Transportation).