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Local News

Pacific Surfliner Commuter Train Service Races Toward Reality

Alternative-transportation advocates laud the proposal, but say more is needed

Members of the Santa Barbara County Association of Government’s Subregional Planning Committee discussed planned commuter rail service at a meeting Wednesday. Click to view larger
Members of the Santa Barbara County Association of Government’s Subregional Planning Committee discussed planned commuter rail service at a meeting Wednesday. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

An early morning commuter train from Los Angeles to Goleta, with stops in Ventura, Carpinteria and Santa Barbara could soon turn from fantasy to reality.

The Pacific Surfliner would depart Los Angeles at 4:09 a.m., hit Santa Barbara by 6:45 a.m. and Goleta at 7:15 a.m. The train would also stop in Ventura and Carpinteria, but those exact times have not been finalized.

More details about the plan emerged at the Santa Barbara County Association of Government’s Subregional Planning Committee meeting Wednesday in Santa Barbara.

“I feel like I am about to leap out of my skin,” said Jack Ucciferri, an alternative-transportation activist. “I am so excited. Commuter rail has been a long-held dream.”

The commuter train service only needs to clear one more roadblock: approval at next Wednesday’s Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor (Lossan) meeting.

Officials at Wednesday’s SBCAG committee meeting in Santa Barbara expect approval for a two-year pilot program. The panel voted 6-0 to recommend to the full board a Memorandum of Understanding with MTD for providing "last-mile" transit service to take riders to their jobs after they arrive at the station.

“We are closer than ever to implementing this service,” said Pacific Surfliner managing director Jennifer Bergener. “This is a service we expect to grow over time.”

In the evening, the train would depart the Goleta Amtrak station at 4:25 p.m., hit Santa Barbara at 4:40 p.m. and then Los Angeles at 7:47 p.m.

Commuter rail has been an elusive goal of alternative-transportation advocates for years.

More than 15,000 people live in Ventura County and drive to their jobs in Santa Barbara County daily, a commute that clogs Highway 101 through Carpinteria and Montecito.

The only train from Ventura County that currently travels to Goleta doesn’t arrive until 10:43 a.m., far too late for employers who typically require workers to arrive at their jobs by 9 a.m. or earlier.

After years of talks and negotiations, Amtrak, Union Pacific, and Ventura and Santa Barbara counties have worked out a deal to retime the train so that it arrives earlier in the day.

SBCAG plans to spend up to $2.5 million of Measure A money to fund the service.

The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District will provide bus service from the train station to key employment centers in both Santa Barbara in Goleta.

In Santa Barbara, buses will transport riders to the downtown core and Cottage Hospital.

In Goleta, buses will provide service east and west along Hollister Avenue to employment centers, primarily in the Goleta Corporate Park area and in Old Town and the Goleta Cottage Hospital area.

“We’re really excited at MTD to be part of the solution,” said General Manager Jerry Estrada.

The need for commuter train service was magnified earlier this year when the deadly Montecito debris flow closed Highway 101, forcing Ventura County commuters to find another way to reach the South Coast.

SBCAG believes the demand will be high, and will study ridership during the two-year-period as a basis for expanding the program. The Pacific Surfliner train that would come into Santa Barbara County has about 500 seats.

SBCAG and Amtrak have purposely kept the details about the program quiet until they receive final approval. Once that is completed, they are planning a massive marketing outreach campaign to inform the public about the service.

Right now, plans call for the service to being April 2. Traffic Solutions will offer free passes for commuters during the month of April. Prices for 10-ride and monthly train passes will also be discounted to $50 and $150, respectively, through Measure A funding, said Gregg Hart, deputy director of SBCAG. 

Some people in the room at Wednesday’s meeting said the train is a good start, but it’s not enough, and that officials must push for more commuter train service, and develop a two-track system to allow another train on the rails.

In 2008, voters approved Measure A, a one-half percent sales tax that is expected to generate more than $1 billion between 2010 and 2040. Part of the selling point to voters in that plan, and in SBCAG's 101 in Motion report, was the promise of two round-trip trains as part of the pilot program. 

“We are really excited about the service and hope it’s just the beginning,” said Joanna Kaufman, program director at COAST.

Ucciferri told the committee not to crow too much about the single train.

“This is not a train," Ucciferri said. "This is a great, exciting, first step."

Committee member Das Williams, Santa Barbara County First District supervisor, agreed.

“This is not like ‘we’re done,’” he said. “If we are going to fulfill what the voters were asking for, this is a good start.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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