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Commuter Rail Getting Closer As Major 101 Construction Looms

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Long-held dream to get Ventura County commuters out of their cars and onto the train takes a step forward. Will it be soon enough to ease highway widening congestion?

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Local politicians came a step closer this week to their goal of bringing – by as early as two years from now—commuter rail from Ventura County to the greater Santa Barbara area via Amtrak train.

To the delight of three Santa Barbara City Council members, LOSSAN, a multi-county agency of elected officials from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, endorsed the concept Wednesday in Los Angeles.

But it’s a race against time, and commuter-rail will likely miss the starting gun.

The largest freeway construction project in the history of Santa Barbara County is set to begin this summer, and the widening work on Highway 101 will not let up for up to two decades.

Santa Barbara City Councilman Roger Horton said he is worried the freeway projects from the Milpas Street exit to the Ventura County line will put a chokehold on Santa Barbara’s commuting workforce – which constitutes one-third of all local employees.

 

“My projection is people won’t want to work here anymore, if they live down south,” said Horton, who touted commuter rail during his first campaign for election back in 2000. “The well-being of the entire area is going to be compromised.”

The commuter-rail proposal, put forth by a City Council subcommittee comprising Horton and Council members Helene Schneider and Grant House, calls for tweaking the schedules at Amtrak so that commuter trains will arrive punctually in the morning and evening. (Amtrak’s Surfliner train is currently on time only 85 percent of the time; the plan calls for boosting that proportion to 95 percent.)

“We hope we will be initiating a train service that will be attractive for commuters to park in the Ventura County Fairgrounds and ride into town,” said Rob Dayton, the city’s principal transportation planner.

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City leaders also want city buses to loop through the train depot, and are even pushing for major employers such as Raytheon, UCSB and Santa Barbara City College to send shuttles to the depot to pick up employees.

Eventually, they hope to increase the number of stops to three every morning and evening, and to use a commuter rail line other than Amtrak. Other more ambitious components include subsidizing ticket prices and laying more track so the erratically scheduled Union Pacific freightliners can pull over to make way for non-stop commuter trains.

One key part of the discussion is the position of Union Pacific, which owns the tracks. The company’s current position on the quest to bring commuter rail to the area is skeptical.

“That particular corridor is already at capacity and would not be able to handle any additional trains,” said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. But he added, “if there is a new proposal, I’m sure the UP managers would review the proposal to determine if anything’s changed, if there are any additional trains, and whether their new proposal could be accommodated.”

City leaders have had more success getting buy-in from several government bodies across the region. In addition to the support from LOSSAN (the San Diego - Los Angeles - San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency), the concept has been endorsed by the city of Goleta, the Metropolitan Transit District and the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Following the project’s current “coalition building” phase, the group will make a formal request to Caltrans to reschedule train times, Dayton said.

“Then we’ll ask the state legislature, and perhaps the federal government, to help the funding effort,” he said.

But the plan’s most lynchpin stakeholders have yet to weigh in: the voters.

The city leaders, as well as First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, are hoping voters in November of 2008 will change their minds about the massive transportation initiative known as Measure D. http://www.sbcag.org/measured.html

The revised measure calls for earmarking $25 million to the commuter-rail project.

In November of 2006, voters rejected the request to continue Measure D, a half-cent sales tax that was passed in 1989 and is set to expire in 2009. The last election’s unsuccessful proposal called for bumping up the tax by an additional quarter-cent. (That idea has been dropped from the new proposal.)

In any case, not everyone believes the upcoming freeway construction project will be so bad.

Kirsten Ayars, community outreach liaison for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, said no lanes will be closed during peak hours.

“It’s not going to be a nightmare,” she said. “That’s a common misconception.”

The $57 million widening project – kickstarted by Measure D but bankrolled mostly by the state gas tax—will take four years, and involves the two-mile stretch of Highway 101 from the Milpas exit to Hot Springs Road. Among the project’s many facets will be the addition of a third lane on the entire stretch going southbound.

Going northbound, a third lane will be added to only half of the section – north of the Salinas Street exit—and a merge lane will be added to the other half.

Although lanes will not be closed during peak hours, Ayars acknowledged that they sometimes will be closed at night, and that the project will require closing some exits.

But the Milpas-to-Hot Springs Road project is just one of four in the offing for Highway 101 going down to the Ventura County line. All told, completing the projects will take up to two decades, officials say.

Below is a map detailing the upcoming highway project from the SB County Association of Governments.

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